Q: Much of your work has involved measuring the presence of toxic chemicals in public spaces in Canada’s major cities. Can you describe your work and your findings?
A: I became interested in studying pollution in cities after I had kids. I saw my kids play in the local park, crawl in the sand box, and get covered in dirt. What was in the dirt and could there be potential health effects for my kids and others?
To begin answering this question, my graduate students and I set about measuring levels of pollutants in soils, local ponds, tree leaves and air. We wondered not only what pollutants were in these places, but also where the pollutants came from and how the pollutants moved through the city. These thoughts led us to consider the role of buildings and, as a consequence, we started washing windows and analyzing the pollutants in the material removed from the windows.
We have found that cities have higher concentrations of a wide array of chemical contaminants relative to the surrounding area. The exception to this is pesticides. However, even some pesticides can have higher levels in cities than agricultural areas because urbanites can “overdose” their lawns with pesticides. We have found that some contaminant concentrations are higher indoors than outdoors, and the opposite is true for other contaminants. There are numerous sources of the contaminants, but cars and trucks stand out as major contributors of contaminants that pollute the air, soils and water. Chemicals emitted from building materials, household products, electronics and other goods are also sources of pollution.
Next we wondered about the potential health effects. Many studies are finding a wide range of illnesses associated with air pollutants, especially those from cars and trucks. Many studies are also now finding subtle effects from exposure to some of the contaminants emitted from household products, electronic equipment, electrical infrastructure, etc. At the same time, other studies have found that people living in urban areas tend to have better health than those in rural areas, due, in part, to better health care systems and other facilities that are available in cities. Thus, relationships between environmental contaminants and health are not simple.