Guest blogger Zia Islam is a P. Eng at Toronto Public Health

You may be familiar with stories about the big bad industrial companies releasing toxic chemicals into the air, but what about the mom and pop dry cleaner that cleans your shirts, or the auto body shop on your street that uses toxic paint? Some of the chemicals released by Toronto businesses are bad for your health, difficult to track and even harder to reduce. That’s why the City of Toronto initiated the ChemTRAC program with the Environmental Reporting and Disclosure Bylaw which requires certain businesses in Toronto to report annually on their use and release of priority chemicals.

With the help of a grant from TAF, Toronto Public Health (TPH) collaborated with the City’s Economic Development and Culture division and small businesses in Toronto to identify ways to improve air quality in Toronto. TPH convened a panel of business stakeholders and hired technical consultants to advise on the business case for reducing eight substances of highest concern in Toronto based on their toxicity and amount released: volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides, particulate matter 2.5, polycyclic hydrocarbons, chromium hexavalent, cadmium, lead and mercury. TPH then pilot tested pollution prevention (P2) approaches with their business partners with a view towards developing sector specific programs. The experience of several pilot participants highlights the potential that P2 initiatives can have. For example:

  • Installation of state of the art equipment in a crematorium reduced the total emissions of mercury from the funeral sector in Toronto by 25 percent between 2012 and 2014.
  • A chemical manufacturing company, being encouraged by ChemTRAC initiatives, reduced the release of VOCs from their facility by 23 percent. It also reduced water consumption by 1,500 litres an hour through a simple process modification.
  • A food and beverage manufacturing company was able to reduce the release of VOCs by more than 50 percent by installing highly efficient new equipment.

Following this initial work and based on a series of criteria, TPH identified the following five sectors that would benefit most from a City initiative, along with corresponding pollution prevention (P2) opportunities:

  • Auto body painting and repair: changing the type of paint and equipment used
  • Dry cleaning: water-based cleaning is the environmentally preferred process
  • Fabricated metal product manufacturing: chemical recovery and reuse; use of alternative solvents for cleaning parts; change in equipment used
  • Food manufacturing: receiving and mixing ingredients in a closed system; increase in process energy efficiency
  • Wood product manufacturing: recycling of solvents; change in type of glues, adhesives, stains and coatings used

The total reported releases of harmful chemicals in 2014 were 15 percent lower than those reported for 2012, when the City of Toronto started tracking them. However, only 17 percent of the reporting facilities showed a continuous reduction in releases for the period of 2012 to 2014. This indicates that more can be done to ensure widespread implementation of P2 measures.

Next steps: P2 in the dry cleaning sector

ChemTRAC is now turning its focus to scaling up the proven approaches one sector at a time, starting with dry cleaning. Tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene or perc) is a toxic substance that has been widely used as a dry cleaning solvent in Canada for more than sixty years. Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) has already issued fines ranging from $10K to $60K to dry cleaners in Toronto due to improper storage and disposal of perc.

Based on a review conducted by the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute, water-based professional cleaning is the most economically viable and environmentally preferred alternative to perc-based cleaners. It offers a number of advantages including reduced pollution, user safety, water and energy savings, cost competitiveness and ensuring the durability of garments.

At present, Toronto Public Health is working with a select group of champions in the dry cleaning sector to overcome barriers to P2 and promote a sector-wide switch to water-based cleaning solvents.

At its May 30th meeting, the Board of Health requested that TPH develop a point-of-sale display program requiring all dry cleaners to clearly disclose to customers the types of solvents used to clean garments and any known hazards these solvents pose to public health.

Currently TPH is inviting business associations, community organizations and labour groups to apply for the ChemTRAC toxics reduction grants to promote the reduction of toxic chemicals, particularly those 25 substances listed under the bylaw.

TPH will next explore opportunities for pollution prevention with the business associations and other stakeholders in the auto body painting and repair sector followed by the other three sectors.