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Our Environment and Our Health - Issues & Actions

A. Introduction

B. Environment & Health Issues

C. Taking Action

D. Related Resources

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A. Introduction

In the past few years, public awareness of environmental issues and the impacts on human health has intensified. More information, scientific reports, media coverage, and personal exposure to illnesses related to environmental degradation and toxins, have all contributed to rising public concern. Health Canada reports that "over 90% of Canadians surveyed in 1996 believe that our air, water and land are more contaminated now than ever before. Two out of every three people surveyed said that their health has likely or has definitely been affected by pollution" (Health & Environment 1997).

If we know that health and environment are tightly linked, why have we not taken concerted, local, national and international action on these issues? This year, the voices for prevention and change are stronger. This spring, the dynamic workshop "Everyday Carcinogens: Stopping Cancer Before It Starts" held March 26-27, 1999 in Hamilton, Ontario led to a new organization committed to preventing cancer through preventing pollution. This month, the Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition held its 4th conference in Woolwich Township (150km west of Toronto), and heard of Woolwich HC coalition's 10 years of work on reducing and preventing water contamination, and improving rural land quality. This month, the World Health Organization director-general, Dr. Gro Bruntland, at the Third Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health - Healthy Planet Forum urged action in partnership, to "work across ministries, political, economic, social and geographical boundaries, and with a wide variety of groups and organizations." This week, the Globe and Mail newspaper reported on the pervasiveness of electro-magnetic fields, noting that "There isn't much parents can do to protect children from household electromagnetic fields". This week, Michele Landsberg challenged that view , in her Toronto Star column titled "Let's act now to curtail cancer epidemic". This day, Friday June 25th, there is a one day conference on Hormone Disrupters and their Effects on Children and Families (see announcement in 111.0), to look at what actions can be taken. This is the time for our environment, and our health to be part of community health promotion.

This feature has been a long time coming. It builds upon previous features on environment and health (such as #57 June 5/98 on urban air quality and skin cancer; #34 Dec./97 on women's health and environment; #36 on indicators of children's health, and more). OHPE Bulletin's focus on environment and health will continue in an upcoming issue on indoor air quality, and on community action. This particular issue does NOT look at air quality, global warming, environmental hypersensitivity, genetic impacts or wildlife ill-health - only for reasons of space and that we will cover these issues in other issues. We cannot, and should not, stop in our pursuit of promoting health and well-being through prevention of the most basic and pervasive threats to health - the degradation and contamination of our environment.

Your comments and contributions are always welcome - Alison Stirling
[the following notes have been adapted from the Environment & Health FAQ on the Canadian Health Network web-site, as prepared by Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition]

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B. Environment & Health Issues

Ecology has taught us that "everything is connected to everything else." Our health is connected to the health of the environment through the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. At the same time, the word "environment" often brings to mind the natural environment, and issues like: Air pollution; Toxic chemicals in food and drinking water; Waste disposal; Global warming.

Our environment also means our homes, workplaces and communities. So creating healthy conditions in these places is also part of environmental health.

In Canada, it's everyone's job to protect and improve our health and that of our environment.

This includes:

* Federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments

* Industry and other business

* Non-governmental organizations (such as non-profits)

* Health, education, and environmental groups

* Workplaces and

* Individual action - Educate yourself: Find out what your community is doing about environmental health concerns. Tell local industry, government and the media how you feel about the issue.

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Contaminants in the environment affecting health

A contaminant is an impurity, which can pollute or poison the area where it exists. It can exist naturally, or be created through human activity. Contaminants are also known as pollutants or toxins.

Canadians are exposed to chemical toxins mainly through: the food we eat (including the soil we grow it in); the water we drink; and the air we breathe.

Our modern society produces a large number of pollutants that end up in our environment. Some of these can pose a serious risk to human health. This is because they are long-lasting and build up in our fat tissues. Examples include: Dioxins and furans; PCBs; Metals; DDT

Harmful health impacts may include: cancer; birth defects; problems with how children behave and develop; stomach illness; and respiratory illness (such as asthma)

Recent research suggests that even very small amounts may affect our immune system and our reproductive system.

A number of factors help determine the risks to people's health. These include:

* How toxic the chemical is
* How much of it people are exposed to
* How long they are exposed to it
* Whether it stays and builds up in the body.

What can make a difference?

* Support measures to stop people and industries from producing and releasing contaminants.
* Be aware and informed about how contaminants may affect you.

Dioxins and furans often are by-products of human activities - burning plastics and PVCs, for example. People can also be exposed to these chemicals in certain workplaces, or by eating fish or wild game that have been contaminated by them.

Although PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) have been banned in North America since the 1970's, they are still found in soil, plants, animals, and humans.

Humans created DDT to be used in farming and controlling insects. It has been banned in Canada since 1989.

Metals occur naturally, and can also result from activities related to our lifestyles. Heavy metals cause the most problems, since even low doses are toxic. Municipal and industrial wastes are the main sources. Heavy metals include: mercury; lead; cadmium.

Today, most of us are exposed to PCBs, DDT and some metals from the food we eat.

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Using pesticides can harm our health and the environment. Short-term health effects of pesticides can include: diarrhea; rash; fever; bronchitis; headache. Long-term effects can include: mental confusion; male infertility; birth defects; miscarriages; cancer; death.

Researchers have discovered that some pesticides are "hormone disruptors." This can cause a variety of serious problems. Unborn fetuses are especially at risk. [Note - see 1 day conference description taking place June 25, 1999 on Hormone Disruptors and the World Wildlife Fund's web-site on hormone disrupters -]

Children are also more at risk. Since their immune systems are not yet fully developed, they can't resist illness as easily. For example, some research shows that children from homes that use pesticides are 6 to 7 times as likely to have childhood leukemia as other children.

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Water contamination

In Canada, municipalities test the water regularly for dozens of contaminants. For private wells, it is up to the individual owners to test the water.

Health Canada sets the guidelines for our drinking water. They have set more than 100 objectives for a host of contaminants. These range from bacteria and industrial chemicals. Water has to meet all these objectives to pass the safety test.

Provincial and territorial agencies adopt these objectives. They use them to regulate the quality of water supplied by municipalities (cities, towns and boroughs).

Municipalities are responsible for testing the water they supply to consumers on a regular basis. This is usually once a month.

Many Canadian communities treat their drinking water with chlorine to kill bacteria. Chlorinated substances make up a group of chemicals known as trihalomethanes (THMs). THMs have been linked to higher risks of bladder and possibly other cancers. However, not treating the water with chlorine is a much greater health risk.

A lesser studied area is water contamination in rural areas. In Ontario, the new Food and Farm Production Protection Act, proclaimed in June, has left everyone confused about agriculture's role in reducing water pollution caused by farm animals. The design of the act includes two parts: nuisance and bylaws. The first part deals with seven items that have a potential to be a nuisance. They are: odor, noise, dust, flies, light, smoke and vibration. Water pollution is not defined as a nuisance. "The Water Resources Act, which is administered by MOE, covers water quality and pollution caused by cattle watering in streams," says John Tooley, a district supervisor with the Ministry of Environment in Belleville. "The act doesn't have teeth. It is iffy".

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And There Are More Environmental Issues.

Even with legislation, guidelines, objectives and regular testing, many people are still deeply concerned. Critics claim that there are many chemical substances entering our environment, though scientists know little about how they can affect our health.

The list could go on and on. toxins in fish and wildlife, household products, air quality indoors and outside, global warming and more. However, we should be looking at what works in tackling health and environment issues, who is taking action and how we can be involved.

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C. Taking Action

If you are concerned about a local environmental health issue, talk to your neighbours. There may be community and environmental groups active in your neighbourhood.

All across the province, there are environmental groups who are actively working on issues related to human health. For more than a year, the Ontario Healthy Communities eight regional Animators have been bringing their community development and organizing skills and resources to link groups working on both health and environment. The OHCC Health and Environment Project, funded by Health Canada, has goals to: increase community awareness of health and environment issues; to link health and environment networks, groups and sectors; and to strengthen local health and environment networks, committees, and groups taking action on issues. Contact your regional staff through the OHCC office at or 1-800-766- 3418.

Here is what Michele Landsberg had to say in the Toronto Star, on Sunday June 20, 1999 in her column titled "Let's Act Now to Curtail Cancer Epidemic" [see OHPE 111-0 announcements, and also see Contacts below].

"On the principle that acting now to prevent cancer through environmental activism feels better than engaging in denial and apathy, here are some suggestions:

* You may want to join the Toronto Environmental Alliance, (416) 596-0660, a group that just persuaded the city to phase out the use of pesticides on public land.

* There's still time to sign up for a 10-day summer institute, July 5 to 16, focusing on links between health and the environment. at the the Ontario Institute for Studies in Educational. Call (416) 928-0880 for more information

* Plan to attend the World Conference on Breast Cancer, in Ottawa, July 26-31 1999. It's a galvanizing experience, bringing together health and environmental activists, cancer survivors, scientists, medical experts and researchers. Phone (613) 549-1118 for information.
StopCancer is an energetic and widely representative group that sprang into existence after a high-powered conference at McMaster University last March. Its activist goal is to prevent cancer by fighting pollution. A planning meeting will be held in August; all are welcome."

Regional or Public Health Authority

Public Health is usually responsible for controlling infectious diseases, food safety and safe water. What is offered at your local Health Unit may vary.

If you have any concerns about the quality of your well water, contact your local public health unit. They analyze the bacteria in the water free of charge. For contact list of Public Health Units in Ontario see - Alpha -
If you have questions about your local recycling or toxic waste disposal programs, contact your municipality.


For contact information about spills and environmental emergencies in your province or territory, contact Environment Canada's National Emergencies or (24/7 Service, Collect Calls Accepted) Tel: (819) 997-3742

If you have other questions about environmental health contact the local office of Environment Canada or Health Canada (

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D. Related Resources

World Health Organization (WHO) meeting with UN Environment Program - June 16, 1999-
Third Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health - Healthy Planet Forum / Action in Partnership for the 21st Century, London, 16-18 June 1999.
See Dr. Gro Bruntland's speech at:

Environmental Contaminants and Children's Health - A National Symposium and Project-
Canadian Institute of Child Health held a national symposium held in May 1997, and together with a literature review, an outreach and needs assessment and six regional consultations, completed a detailed project. The Canadian Children's Environmental Health Network is developing from these consultations and the symposium. The Canadian Journal of Public Health published a special issue on Environmental Contaminants and Children's Health in June of 1998, building on this symposium. This special issue is available for $16 through the CICH publications section

Contacts and Community Resources:

"Health And The Environment: Ontario's Record is Not Good!" a 4 page summary of actions for citizens, industry and government, prepared in June 1999 by Sat Dharam Kaur, N.D., author of A Call to Women: The Healthy Breast Program and Workbook, to be released in July 1999 by Quarry Press, Kingston, Ontario.

The Health And Environment Community Animation project 1998-99 report of Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition, detailing the extensive community activities, networks and initiatives happening across the province, may be acquired from the OHCC central office - e-mail or by fax - 416-408-4843.

The Breast Cancer Prevention Coalition (BCPC)
is an Ontario-based women's organization which was launched in 1996. The membership is a mix of breast cancer survivors, friends, and supporters from across the province who believe that human health is being harmed by toxic substances - including known and suspected carcinogens - in homes, workplaces and the environment-at-large. Mission: primary prevention through pollution prevention See or 23 Lynden Hill Cres. Brantford ON N3P 1R1 Tel 519-751-2560

Rural Water Contamination
Woolwich Healthy Communities
Clean Waterways Group, Sustainable Development, Trails Committee
P.O. box 370, 10 Parkside Drive
St. Jacob's ON N0B 2N0

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These notes were adapted by Alison Stirling from documents and discussions with the Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition and their Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Environmental Health prepared for the Canadian Health Network web-site and from members of the Breast Cancer Prevention Coalition.