In Windsor, Ontario, the presence of air or water pollution may not be quite as shocking as some other places. (See, for example, the Sarnia, Aamjiwnaang, and Southwest Detroit pages on this site.) And yet there are serious pollution issues in the Windsor area that are not always made known to the public, nor do residents know where to look for the information that is out there. This page is an attempt to get some of that information all in one place.
In Windsor, as elsewhere, pollution comes from all sorts of different sources. There is pollution released from the smokestacks of factories and pollution that comes from liquids dumped or spilled in water sources. Even exhaust and everyday human activities can cause pollution in various ways and in various lcoations. However, certain contaminants are more likely to be present in some types of pollution and not others. This could be because of the nature of pollutants themselves, or because of the processes that usually create them. It makes everything just a little bit more complicated. For this reason, the following discussion of air and water pollution in Windsor is divided into separate sections. This is also for ease of access to those who are more interested in one type of pollution than the other.
There have been many more studies done on the human health problems caused by air pollution in Windsor than there have been on water pollution and human health. Therefore, there is a lot more information that is accessible on air pollution as compared with water pollution. This does not, however, always mean that the studies are focusing on the most important issues. There are many industries with factories in and around the Windsor area, but most of these air pollution studies focus on the more prevalent and well known contaminants like carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), and nitrogen and sulfur dioxides (NO2 and SO2). While these studies report important information, they are looking only at the problems caused by elevated levels of contaminants that would be present (though maybe in lower concentrations) in almost any city of a certain size. In fact, only one paper came up in a search on air pollution in Windsor that discusses industrial by-products in the air that are unique to Windsor.
Since researchers seem to be avoiding studies that analyze Windsor’s own unique cocktail of chemicals, this body of research leaves many unanswered questions about what happens in the air of this city. Which factories in the area are producing which chemicals? What is created when the chemicals in the atmosphere combine? Do we know what health problems could be produced by any of those chemicals that no one is talking about, or what happens when those chemicals react with one another?
Research for this page uncovered a list of the chemicals and contaminants confirmed to be present in the area surrounding Windsor, which are listed below. The list includes some basic information on each pollutant, as well as information on the processes that tend to create these pollutants and the health problems associated with long term or high levels of exposure. While this list is far from exhaustive, it at least represents a start at documenting some of the main air pollutants in Windsor and their role in human health problems.
Particulates: There are three different kinds of particle air pollution: coarse, fine, and ultrafine. This can be slightly misleading because they are all very small (measured in micrometers). Coarse particles are usually from soil, fine particles are commonly produced by combustion engines (transportation, manufacturing, or power generation), and ultrafine particles are the smallest but usually clump together to form fine particles.
The fine particles produced include sulfur and nitrogen oxides, some acids, fine particles of metal, and carbon compounds (see below). Most of these are problematic because they are just the right size to be breathed deeply into the lungs and they can easily travel long distances and often end up indoors. As a group, fine particulates can: make hospitalization from serious coughs and bronchitis twice as likely; increase the occurrence and severity of asthma; and increase the likelihood of death due to heart or lung problems (including cancer). Some studies also state that there is a higher risk for birth defects if a woman is exposed to air pollution while pregnant.
Sulfur Dioxide: As stated above, sulfur dioxide is usually found in fine particulate matter, typically produced by combustion, that hangs over cities and travels long distances. Fewer health problems are associated with exposure to sulfur dioxide, and most of these problems are associated with short term exposure: mainly hospitalization due to reduced lung function. After repeated short-term exposure a tolerance begins to develop. More in-depth information on sulfur dioxide can be found at this website.
Nitrogen Dioxide: This is another byproduct of combustion and is the compound that often contributes to the creation of ozone. It also doesn’t cause any known long term health problems; however, it has been known to increase the likelihood of respiratory infections and hospitalization from reduced lung function. More information about nitrogen dioxide here.
Lead: When heated up, usually in engines or extremely hot industrial processes, lead will become a fine particle in the air. Because lead is not common in gasoline anymore, it is less problematic than it used to be. It doesn’t matter which way it is taken into the body; under any circumstance it causes the same problems. In children it can cause a wide variety of developmental and neurological problems: brain damage, reduced nerve function, lower IQs, slow growth, and visual or hearing problems. Some of these can also occur in adults, along with blood pressure problems. More information can be found here.
Ozone: Ozone is often created when light reacts with nitrogen dioxide or other compounds produced by engines that contain oxygen. This is why ozone is worst on sunny days: more light to react with other air pollution. Typical symptoms of short term exposure to ozone are coughing, a sore chest, reduction of lung function, and the body is less able to absorb oxygen in the lungs. This is probably because the body thinks that ozone is the kind of oxygen that it can use, will try to absorb it, and then the ozone can cause damage. Long-term exposure to ozone can cause death, but usually people get out of high ozone conditions before that happens. Usually, repeated exposure to ozone causes a person to build up a tolerance, but it also causes lung and throat cells to become increasingly irritated and inflamed. Eventually this could lead to a thickened throat lining. More information about ozone can be found at this website.
Carbon Monoxide: This is usually created by combustion, and because it is odorless and colorless it is extremely difficult for individuals to detect with their senses. However, it causes many problems in humans because it tends to attach to oxygen transport molecules and prevent them from taking oxygen places it needs to go in the body. Eventually, the amount of carbon monoxide attached to oxygen transporters is so high that very little oxygen is getting anywhere and death occurs (through a sort of suffocation).
The above list covers only problems that are caused by combustion and other fuel burning operations that are in the Windsor area. This is mainly due to the fact that information on these air pollutants is far more accessible than is information on the other main type of pollutant in the area — by-products from chemical production. While there is no doubt that these chemical by-products are in Windsor’s air and that many of them are carcinogenic, there is little information available on the specifics regarding cancer, nor on shorter-term health impacts.
The one article (referred to above) that does give significant amounts of useful information on chemicals and related contaminants in Windsor’s air is Gilbertson and Brophy’s “Community Health Profile of Windsor, Ontario: Anatomy of a Great Lakes Area of Concern” (2001). This article, which is extremely useful in pointing out specific industries that might be producing these chemicals, the highest producers of chemicals in the area, and which cancers are the most prevalent, can be found here. Below is a list of these carcinogenic chemicals.
Benzene, 1,3-butadiene, chloroform, carbon tetrachloride, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), acetaldehyde, perchloroethylene, ethylene dichloride, methylen chloride, and 1,4-dichlorobenzene.
Some of these chemicals are vaguely recognizable, chloroform for example, but most of them are complete gibberish to anyone who isn’t a highly informed chemist. Even then, only a biochemist might know what some of these can do to people. Beyond that, this list is from testing of the air and looking at factory emissions from the Windsor area; this almost definitely isn’t a complete list of chemicals. There are others that no one has thought to look for as an air pollutant yet, are created after they come out of the smokestacks, or we don’t know what they do to people — the upshot of all these factors is that no one is studying them.
There are basically no Windsor-specific studies about water pollution and the potential health impacts of drinking polluted water from the Detroit River. Because of that, this section uses what little information could be found on Windsor, combined with general information about water pollution studies. This means that it may not be as area-specific as one would like. Given these limitations, the list below is not definitive; rather, it provides information on some of the chemicals and other contaminants that may be in the water surrounding Windsor, or that are at a high enough presence that they might be injested.
Heavy Metals: These are absorbed into the soil and plants that are eaten by animals or humans. The elevated levels of these metals are accumulated in every plant or animal that eats another. For example, when grass absorbs the metals from the water in the soil, a cow eats the grass, and then a person eats the cow, the metals from one are passed to the next. Each level takes in larger and larger amounts of the heavy metal. All of them are harmful in large quantities, but some are more prevalent in this area than others. Some of the major problems caused by these metals are discussed below.
Cadmium: This heavy metal is usually produced during smelting or metal processing. Even at very low levels, cadmium can be extremely harmful. A person exposed to it on a long term scale can develop very serious health problems, including: kidney problems or kidney failure, osteoporosis, increased blood pressure, and heart problems. More information on cadmium can be found at this website.
Lead: It doesn’t matter which way it is taken into the body; under any circumstance lead causes the same problems. In children it can cause a wide variety of developmental and neurological problems: brain damage, reduced nerve function, lower IQs, slow growth, and visual or hearing problems. Many of these can also occur in adults as well as blood pressure, reproductive system, kidney, bladder, and stomach problems. A link to more information about lead can be found above, in the section on air pollution.
Mercury: There is no known function in the body for mercury so exposure in any form can be very damaging. Mercury can cause spontaneous abortions, gingivitis, severe brain damage, and damage to the nervous system. For more in depth information about mercury and mercury poisoning, look at this website.
Arsenic: Arsenic is usually used in wood preservatives, some paints, dyes, and fertilizers and so it can be present in higher concentrations in areas with manufacturing facilities for these substances. Many different problems are caused by arsenic and it has no known safe levels for drinking water. When it gets into the body it interferes with many molecular processes. For example, it can attach to enzymes and prevent them from carrying out their functions. It can prevent the production of ATP-the molecule that the body uses as energy to run everything else. Arsenic can also cause a disorder (frequently confused with Guillian-Barre syndrome) in which the immune system attacks the nerves, causing muscle weakness and nerve inflammation. For more information, see this website.
Other contaminants in Windsor’s water
Formaldehyde: This chemical is used in a variety of industrial processes involving permanent adhesives on carpeting and plywood, foam insulation, and paper production. Exposure to formaldehyde through contaminated water or other injested substances can cause stomach burns and ulcers, severe gastrointestinal problems, kidney failure, and sensitization of the skin. For more information on formaldehyde see this website.
Chromium (VI): This type of chromium is commonly released during certain manufacturing processes, some wood treatments, and the production of stainless steel cookware. It is different than other forms of chromium and much more harmful to human health. Direct exposure to chromium (IV) — a constant hazard for workers in plants where it is utilized in production processes — can cause extreme irritation of the respiratory tract and skin irritation. If ingested orally through contaminated food or water, chromium can cause stomach and intestinal problems, anemia, damage to the male reproductive organs, and cancer. For more information about all types of chromium (about 600 pages worth) see this website.
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