It's unsettling to type in a postal code and be shown a matter-of-fact list of those in your environs spitting pollutants. In my case, good old neighbour Cangel Inc. is putting out 18,950 kilograms of the stuff.
Even more unsettling are the classifications of the primary poisons being pumped, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide: "developmental toxicant," "respiratory toxicant," "neurotoxicant."
But wait, I love respiring. Developing, too.
So does everybody else, I'm guessing, which is why the board of health has begun work on a strategy to widen access to pollution information.
But take note: the so-called "community right to know" bylaw endorsed by council six years ago, the likes of which exists in New York, Oregon and Massachusetts, is far from being enacted.
Despite this alarming failure, I suppose we should all be grateful the city is even ruminating on the problem. The fact is, information on local toxins is sparse and hard won. The Cangel stats, for example are gleaned from Pollution Watch's website, which lists chems mundane by current standards (nitrous and carbon oxides are just workaday poison clouds compared to others being tracked). But the list is far from exhaustive.
That's because Pollution Watch relies on the National Pollutant Release Inventory, a federal program that requires companies to report their use of certain toxins. But only 323 pollutants are tracked out of the thousands potentially swimming our bloodstreams, and only for the 8,000-some companies that put out 10 tonnes or more of the flotsam a year.
Without the efforts of Pollution Watch, even the limited info we do have would be largely inaccessible or indecipherable to most people.
But how deep could the city go in really getting the goods on what's being spewed? Could it mandate self-reporting beyond what the feds require?
One thing the board has decided is to disseminate, primarily via the Web, information currently reserved for political staffers, like info on infractions of the anti-pesticide and sewer use bylaws.
The reasons for municipalities to take the lead on this stuff are both political and practical.
Politically, the province has consistently whittled down its support for toxics-tracking: the sewer bylaw only tracks 38 substances; the OnAIR air pollution tracking project was discontinued in February; the certificates-of-approval program for the use of proscribed chemicals has been unwieldy and unenforceable for years; and the Ministry of the Environment now tracks 15 air pollutants, while it used to track 340.
"If there were ever an argument for keeping public health related to municipalities," says Councillor Joe Mihevc, "this is it."
And practically, it makes sense for localities to track the ubiquitous chemicals put out by dry cleaners, auto shops and gas stations in smaller but still persistent and cumulative amounts, according to David McKeown, Toronto's medical officer of health.
Thirty-five per cent of airborne toxins, he says, come from small businesses.
However, again, the city is still shy of drafting a bylaw. McKeown says companies might fight potentially proprietary information being made public and infringing their "competitiveness;" he also notes concerns over terrorism.
"If people who wish to do harm to society have good information on hazardous substances," he says, "they may be more able to do so."
But as I discovered with Cangel, these substances don't need to be known to do harm - and perhaps if they were tracked the pressure applied by a watchdog public would inspire more security than exists now.
It is notable that New York's bylaw - the enforcement of which is funded by fees and fines paid by industry - remains, even after 9/11.
It could be that the board of health is eager to court co-operation from the private sector to make any future bylaw more effective and avoid the sorts of battles fought over the smoking and pesticide bans.
But as councillor and board of health member Glenn De Baeremaeker points out, such forbearance has resulted in few results so far. "I'm a little thrown," he says. "Council directed [the creation of a bylaw] six years ago." Legal staff informed him that since the direction did not explicitly say which agency or board was to draft the law, it has languished.
Citizen board member Fiona Nelson hints at another reason for lack of progress: opposition from the private sector outside Toronto. "We may only be a municipality," she says, "but we have a larger population than seven of the 10 provinces. If we go toward a bylaw, we could be a model for the country."
A story told by member Brian Hyndman points to possible disadvantages of a right-to-know bylaw for businesses. When an aircraft manufacturer in his hometown of Cambridge was found to have been allowing the solvent trichlorethelyne to leach into the groundwater and people's basements for decades, numerous class-action lawsuits began to surface.
Steelworker John Humphrey says many companies have been jeopardized or even closed because of rampant toxicity afflicting workers or local communities. "We've had to bring environmental issues to the bargaining table,"he says, "just to protect our members' jobs for the future."