Coming up for air: Windsor’s continuous struggle against air pollution


According to the Government funded, Cancer Care Ontario, Windsor has some of the provinces highest rates of several respiratory cancers, and cardiovascular and immune disorders as well. Experts continue to debate whether the high rates of these diseases can be linked with the city’s elevated levels of air pollution. But proving such associations has been an anomaly, linking these diseases directly to exposure is a work in progress as there are simply too many variables at play. Let’s clean out the ducts, shall we?

The lake freighter Algocape in the Detroit River off Windsor, Ontario / April 09. CC-by-2.0.

Canada’s southernmost city faces a chemical cocktail that originates from numerous pollutant sources. As well as being one of Canada’s most industrialized cities, Windsor is also upwind from heavy polluters in the United States, including a high concentration of coal fired power plants in the Ohio Valley, and in Michigan, incineration facilities, steel mills and the once open air storage of petroleum coke, a byproduct of oil refining, along Detroit’s riverfront. On top of that, the Windsor/Detroit border crossing is the busiest in North America, second in the world, with an estimated 5 million plus cars and transport trucks passing through annually. The result of tight border regulations of post 9/11 America has left near thousands of transport trucks idling throughout the day and night, every day and night, even longer than ever, miles from the Ambassador bridge, down Huron Church road, and further towards Essex county. The smell is constant and sometimes the haze, visible. The new bridge will definitely take this exposure away from residential areas, but cars and trucks still pollute, and the NIMBY complex emerges; people as far away as Nova Scotia are affected by the Ambassador Bridge, Michigan and Ohio’s emissions.

Along with this chemical cocktail effect, Windsor, Ontario is not only one of Canada’s hottest cities, and in recent summer months, record-breaking, it is Canada’s most humid city. In 2012 Windsor suffered from 24, almost a collective month, of smog days. Humidity not only creates smog, but lowers lung capacity, effectively concentrating the caustic effects it has predominantly on our younger and older age groups. Some scientists are speculating that as climate change increases the average temperature of the province, smog formation will increase as well. Climate change is a speculative anomaly, that I can’t comment on, but as long as we’re hitting record breaking temperatures, the smog increase is a serious menace. Slumming it proper on the west end back in July 2011, a strange layer of heat stuck around. Like we were all individually wrapped in sheets of pink fiberglass insulation and stuck in an old attic. We complained, naturally, but got used to it. Months later Statistics Canada let everyone know that Windsor, Ontario, July 2011 was the hottest month on record in Canadian history. Living in St. John’s this winter, I sympathize over my hometown’s winter of arctic proportions. “Max, we have the same fucking temperature as the planet Mars!” an excited, frozen pal informed me one evening over the telephone. It was -22 below not including wind chill, I tried to inform him that Mars fluxuates between -150 degrees at the poles and hits a balmy 20-35 degrees in the summer, but between rehabilitating gulps of Jameson, he shivered a pirate laugh and told me he’s never in his life felt it this cold. His heating bill started to sink him and one night his jam jars froze in the cupboards. Extreme weather may be here to stay, and pollution, although not in bloom as it is within warmer months, still plays a part in winter weather. No ventilation during winter months allows for particulate matter to settle in; kitchen vents, air purifiers and filters help. I type this and sound like a bomb shelter advocate. The mere suggestion of any sort of preventative measure coming from me, a lazy-jay folk musician, comes across as a bit rich…so I’ll get back to the facts.

In 2001, a “Community Health Profile of Windsor” study was done by Dr. Michael Gilbertson and Mr. James Brophy, and they found elevated levels of cancer, cardiovascular complications and defects, hospitalizations, birth defects, and deaths associated with the high levels of pollutants in the air and water. In June 2003, longtime NDP MP and outspoken environmentalist Joe Comartin, shocked and inspired by what he read in Gilbertson-Brophy report, put forward Petition No. 79 to the Auditor General and Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, asking for an inquiry into the longtime association between Windsor’s air quality and the high rates of respiratory cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Environment Canada’s response came in November of that year with what was up until then, the most concise survey conducted. Using the Province of Ontario’s Air Quality Index Reporting System (AQI’s), they found considerable evidence of health effects associated with exposure to air pollution. For example, more people die and are admitted to Windsor hospitals for heart and lung problems on days with elevated levels of air pollution. They found lifespan is decreased in cities with high air pollution. The study proved the obvious…that air pollution has negative health effects on the lungs and the cardiovascular system, can change heart rates, constrict arteries, and increase blood pressure. It was shown that there were high concentrations of particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, called VOC’s in Windsor’s air, and, as mentioned, that greater health risks occurred when these particles and compounds settle in indoor air, or where ventilation is poor. Fine particulate matters, like cadmium and lead, are especially volatile due to its ability to penetrate deep within the lungs of a human body. Once fine particulate matter is inhaled, it is with you for life, slowly adding up and strengthening its negative effects on your lungs and cardiovascular system. As of 2011, Windsor was ranked as worst in the province for the presence of airborne fine particulate matter by the Ministry of the Environment. The issue of debate is, although overwhelming evidence in the Gilbertson-Brophy report suggests a link between the raised respiratory cancer and cardiovascular diseases and the poor air quality, air pollution being the direct cause of these diseases cannot be proven until a much larger, more detailed survey is completed.

But of course…Controversy…In 2008, Ontario environmental commissioner Gord Miller, armed with data his office compiled independently, slammed the Ontario Air Quality Index’s methods, when his independent AQI readings registered “very poor” and Ontario AQI we’re registered as “good”. His criticism was focused on the fact that Ontario AQI monitoring stations do not record street level air quality, and only measure for contaminants that are downright toxic. Miller told the Windsor Star that when these AQI stations are generally removed from high pollution areas “their readings can be of questionable value to people living next to factories or busy streets”. And don’t take into consideration ‘the potential cumulative negative effect of pollutants mixing together”. The Windsor Star reported that Miller said “Ontario, which had one of the world’s most advanced air monitoring systems when the AQI was introduced in 1988, now needs to play catch-up to European cities, which have a blend of regional and local air monitoring for greater pollution reporting accuracy.” The Star’s article continued with Windsor-Essex County medical officer of health Dr. Allen Heimann remarking that with “more accurate air pollution monitoring and public health advisories would absolutely cut back on the numbers of premature deaths” and, “the whole point of the AQI is to alert people with pre-existing medical conditions.”


According to a recent Ontario Environment Ministry report, Windsor’s air quality has improved, but in terms of pollutants and smog-causing ozone that affect human health, Windsor is still among the worst in the province. And it is estimated that air pollution costs the Province of Ontario over one billion dollars annually over hospital and emergency visits. The Canadian Medical Association estimated that elevated air pollution will cause 21,000 annual deaths and 314 people in that figure will come from Windsor and Essex County. Ontario is making strides to becoming the first North American region to close all coal fired electrical plants with an elimination date set for this year, and programs like Drive Clean, although met with mixed feelings, is at least a start to get heavy polluting cars repaired or off the road. But as the province strives to clean up our skies, Windsorites are feeling a bit left in the haze as, American emissions are responsible for the majority of Essex County’s pollution and studies detailing the true health effects of long-term VOC and particulate exposure are yet to be fully realized. As Windsorites, fathers, mothers, and friends we MUST get those studies underway and push for state-of-the-art AQI, and most especially work towards eliminating the Grendel of international cross-contamination. Half hurtful monikers such as “the dirty Dub” and political satirist Stephen Colbert, declaring Windsor as “the world’s rectum” earns chuckles, but I think its damaging hogwash. Our city has such a spirit, people move here for good reason. People move away, but they come back. We have arguably one of the best arts and culture, food and music scenes in the country. We have an intimate relationship with Detroit, and can escape to Chicago or Toronto, we have such geographical advantage, we can’t let another generation or two breathe in the shit from the real rectum that’s spewing out its guts as you read these words. Windsorites are known for seeking adamant improvement of their hometown, and this is a topic that we cannot afford to let up into the air. Bundle up for now; don’t hold your breath, summer is just around the corner.

By: Max Marshall

Max Marshall is a Songwriter, Musician and Folklorist currently living in St. John’s Newfoundland; But Windsor, Ontario is, and always will be his home.