Many of us take for granted that the air in our homes is safe. When our children play in the local park, we don’t worry about how their health could be at risk. But unfortunately, this is not the case for all communities in Ontario.

The Ontario government released its findings late last year under the Sarnia Area Environmental Health Project. [1] These findings show that industrial pollution is seriously threatening the health of local people. The worst impacted are Indigenous Peoples who live in the vicinity of an area known as Chemical Valley.

Chemical Valley is located in Sarnia, Ontario. It gets its name from the number of petrochemical and refining facilities located in the area. These facilities emit millions of kilograms of toxic air pollution every year.

This pollution can cause the air to smell like rotten eggs, and a concoction of chemicals can induce dizziness and nausea.

Residents may be told to stay indoors with their windows closed to protect themselves from dangerous pollutant releases that can occur during industrial malfunctions.

It is one of the worst pollution hotspots in Canada.

Many people in the Sarnia area have experienced an industrial emergency in the past. These include industrial explosions, chemical releases, shelter in place alerts, and large flaring events.

In a 10-year period, Ontario’s Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks received 870 reports from local community members impacted by industrial incidents. There are currently 33 industrial flare stacks in the Sarnia area. 18 of these stacks are within one kilometer of people’s homes.

This area is also home to the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. For years, this Indigenous Nation has suffered from the impacts of environmental pollution on their lands. Their community has faced health impacts from the ongoing high levels of pollution and poor air quality. The constant pollution continually impacts their ability to exercise their constitutionally protected Aboriginal and Treaty rights and maintain their cultural relationship with the land.

For more than 100 years, Aamjiwnaang First Nation has been calling for action to reduce pollution in their community. They continue to call for government enforcement and for inclusion in the decisions that directly impact their community members.

There is a legacy of failure to enforce adequate protections. This is a legacy of environmental racism.

After visiting Canada in 2019, Baskut Tuncak, UN special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, wrote, “I observed a pervasive trend of inaction of the Canadian Government in the face of existing health threats from decades of historical and current environmental injustices and the cumulative impacts of toxic exposures by indigenous peoples.”

What is the impact of benzene?  

The Sarnia Area Environmental Health Project found that people living near Chemical Valley were exposed to significant levels of benzene.

Benzene is a highly toxic air pollutant that is hazardous to human health at any level.  It can cause leukemia, and it is associated with other cancers, including myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Benzene is also very common — it is emitted by cars, gas stations, steel mills and other industrial activities. It is also found in crude oil and petroleum products. It is used to make a wide variety of products, like plastics, nylon, latex, resin, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and detergents.

The health project found that concentrations of benzene in the air are above comparison communities in Ontario and areas in California and Michigan that have had similar experiences with industrial pollution.

The worst hit areas in Chemical Valley are the northern portion of the Aamjiwnaang reserve. The benzene levels are unacceptable and present an elevated risk of developing cancer to the people in the area.

There are also concerns about the impact of short-term pollution spikes. Recent scientific research indicates a health risk in sensitive individuals — such as children — exposed to short-term spikes of benzene at lower concentrations. [2]

The report shows the worst spikes of benzene pollution occur near the Aamjiwnaang baseball diamond and band office across the street from the chemical manufacturer — Ineos Styrolution — which uses benzene to produce styrene for polystyrene operations.

Is sulphur dioxide dangerous?

Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is a dangerous chemical linked to several respiratory issues. This includes rates of asthma in children. Young children born in the Sarnia area have a higher chance of developing asthma than those born in other parts of Ontario. [3]

Even short-term spikes in sulphur dioxide pollution are highly dangerous to people with breathing and heart problems causing wheezing and tightness in their chest. Although healthy individuals are less sensitive, they may also experience difficulties breathing.

In Chemical Valley sulphur dioxide can be released from acid gas flaring at the refineries and petrochemical facilities. Acid gas contains hydrogen sulphide (H2S), which converts to sulphur dioxide when combusted in flares. Failures in pollution control equipment and unscheduled shutdowns can also increase sulphur dioxide levels.

This pollution can cause mild to severe adverse impacts in sensitive individuals, such as those with asthma. Certain weather conditions that trap the pollution at low elevations can exacerbate the impacts.

Flaring also results in significant levels of noise and light pollution. It can be loud enough to rattle windows at nearby residences. The noise level from flaring is similar to standing 50 meters from a jet engine at takeoff. Flaring can also produce blinding bright lights which disrupts sleep patterns of those living nearby.

What does the report recommend?

The Sarnia Area Environmental Health Project report recommends that efforts should be made to reduce ambient benzene concentrations. This should be applied across the entire area studied. But special focus should be given to sources in the industrial areas into the northern-most portion of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation lands.

Emitting industries must make all needed and best available pollution control improvements to reduce their emissions of benzene. Taking action could reduce potential long-term risks that community members develop diseases such as leukemia.

The report also recommends that industry must make additional efforts to reduce exposure to SO2. This includes flare minimization plans for individual facilities and ensuring flaring events do not overlap where multiple facilities are flaring at the same time. It also calls for better communication with local communities before and during flaring, with a particular focus on areas where air quality impacts are expected to be worse.

What happens next?

The report clearly shows that pollution levels are well above the standards the Ontario government sets to protect human health. They have been above safe levels for many years. It is beyond unacceptable to permit this level of pollution to continue.

Under Ontario law, industrial facilities are not allowed to emit pollution that may cause adverse effects. To make sure this law is met, both the Ministry and industry must take immediate action to reduce industrial pollution, including reducing production or shutting down facilities that will not or cannot invest in appropriate, effective pollution controls.

For more than a decade, Ecojustice has worked closely with Aamjiwnaang First Nation in supporting their Anishinaabe way of life.   The Anishinaabe way of life is based on the land.  The pollution created by unregulated industry practices has put the Anishinaabe way of life under serious threat.

Ecojustice will continue to use the rule of law to ensure that everyone in Canada can enjoy a life free of dangerous pollution.    

New development:

The federal government recently published new regulations that could help reduce benzene air emissions in Chemical Valley. [4] In particular, they could help tackle emissions from the Ineos Styrolution plant.

The regulations propose to control volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emissions from storage tanks and loading equipment. These are vapours released from petroleum and petrochemical facilities. VOCs such as benzene pose a significant risk to human health.

If the federal government moves quickly to bring this draft regulation into force, this could be a significant step forward in tackling some sources of benzene pollution that impact Aamjiwnaang First Nation.  But more action is urgently needed by all levels of government to truly address the health crisis at Chemical Valley.


[1] Sarnia Area Environmental Health Project
[2] Health Risks Associated With Benzene Exposure in Children: A Systematic Review — Global Pediatric Health
[3] Sarnia-born children more likely to develop asthma than those from London, Windsor: Lawson studyGlobal News
[4] Canada Gazette, Part I, Volume 158, Number 8: Reduction in the Release of Volatile Organic Compounds (Storage and Loading of Volatile Petroleum Liquids) Regulations