Connexions Digest

Citizens Group Scores Success
in Anti-lead Battle

Barbara Wallace

Niagara Street curves through a seven-block stretch near the core of Toronto. It is the heart of Niagara Neighbourhood and the nearest residential street to Toronto Refiners and Smelters (TRS), a recycler of lead from used batteries.

For many years, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, lead emissions from the smelter caused elevated levels of lead in soil, dust, vegetation and people In the surrounding area. In 1970, when the relationship between the smelter's activities and illnesses in the area became clear, extensive citizen actions triggered seven years of controversy that gradually resulted in a better, though still imperfect situation. For a few years, there was a period of relative calm.

In the summer of 1984, one of the doctors at the Niagara Neighbourhood Community Health Centre, whose curiosity had been aroused by the fact that there had been no testing of lead levels in blood for some time, arranged for a student medical researcher to summarize recent data on lead levels in the neighbourhood. The data revealed that excessive lead emissions were again occurring, and a blood testing program was scheduled. These events shattered the complacency of the neighbourhood, and a small group of concerned citizens embarked on a journey that would eventually carry them into commercial publishing and national politics.

The first step on their journey was the formation of a Lead Committee by the Niagara Neighbourhood Residents' Association. The members of this committee realized that they needed professional help to guide them through the maze of technical terms and mass of scientific data that had been accumulating world-wide on the health effects of low-level lead exposure. They obtained funds from Canada Works to hire two researchers. The results of this research moved them from outrage to activism.

Emotional outbursts at early committee meetings - "We and our children are at great risk - somebody must do something now!" - were gradually replaced by information-sharing, educational sessions and plans for actions. Familiarity with industrial control measures, lead exposure and health risks in a contemporary urban environment led them to formulate multi-level strategies:

• For personal health protection, they worked successfully to get full community participation in the 1985 summer blood testing program;

• To improve the quality of life in the community, they investigated what could be accomplished by dealing directly with the owners and managers of TRS. A liaison committee of residents, government, and industry was set up. They also met with other citizen groups in the area to discuss lead risks and strategies;

• For inter-community support, they shared experiences, tactics and positions with South Riverdale, a community on the other side of the downtown Toronto core that was similarly affected by lead;

• To influence political action, they submitted a position paper to the federally commissioned study by the Royal Society of Canada on Lead In the Environment. The Commission later asked them to submit a more detailed paper, which they did. They also became involved, along with South Riverdale and a number of national organizations concerned about children's health, in a coalition working with the federal Ministry of the Environment on removing lead from all gasoline as quickly as possible and with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment on equalizing at-pump prices for leaded and lead-free gasoline.

• In order to share their awareness of lead health problems with other concerned people they obtained funding to allow their researchers to write The Citizen's Guide to Lead: Uncovering a Hidden Health Hazard (see review in this issue of Infoetox).

This tumult of activity took place over a brief eighteen-month period in 1985 and 1986. And their story is not finished. They have now obtained the help of the Canadian Environmental Law Association to sue TRS for excessive lead emissions under the Ontario Environmental Protection Act. In addition, because the City of Toronto is investigating expropriation of the TRS property to make a new expressway connection, the citizens have become involved in site decommissioning plans.

The Niagara Neighbourhood Association has come a long way in its fight against lead pollution. In 1985, they had to hold a yard sale just to help pay minimal office expenses. By 1986, they had brought suit against the smelter, published a book to help others avoid lead risks, had moved Ontario's Minister of the Environment to state at their book-launching party that he supported a more stringent guideline for removing lead-contaminated soil and for equalizing the price of leaded and unleaded gasoline and had influenced the federal government to pass regulations to remove lead from all gasoline.

Through self-education, out-reach, and activism, the Niagara Neighbourhood Lead Committee has successfully worked to reduce lead risks in their neighbourhood and throughout Canada.

Reprinted from Infoetox, Friends of the Earth, Ottawa.

Published in the Connexions Digest, Volume 11, Number 1, Spring (April) 1987



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