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Air pollution was once so bad in Sudbury it literally blackened the earth. Now countries such as China can turn to cleaned-up Canadian city for hope. In so many stock images of Beijing, someone is wearing a face mask. Air pollution has become a feature of the urban Chinese landscape.
There was another city where debilitating air pollution once seemed permanent. In this other city in the 1960s, housewives reportedly planted their tomatoes in wagons: when a plume of bad air descended, the tomatoes could be wheeled out of the toxic cloud.
As for sulphur, “you could taste it when you were outdoors,” says Bill Keller. Keller is the director of the Climate Change and Multiple Stressor Aquatic Research program at Laurentian University, and a resident of Sudbury for the past 40 years.
In Sudbury, he remembers, air pollution was so bad it literally blackened the earth: acid rain, along with mining operations, stripped the land of vegetation, leaving 100,000 hectares of barren or semi-barren moonscape.
The water was exceptionally bad. More than 20,000 lakes in Ontario were acidified to the point of ecosystem damage, 7,000 of them within Sudbury’s immediate vicinity. “Lakes within the city and beyond were some of the most acidified, metal-contaminated lakes in the world,” Keller says.
Just a few decades later, Sudbury is different. Sulphur and metal emissions from local smelters have been reduced by more than 90 per cent from their peak in the 1960s and keep going down.
Figures are similarly encouraging across the continent, with 40 per cent sulphur emission reductions since 1980. Acid rain, the scourge of the 1980s and early 1990s, is kind of like New Kids on the Block: not going away, but barely recognizable.
Sudbury has become a redemption story, the kind that countries such as China — where air pollution problems might seem intractable — can turn to for hope.
“It was pretty significant globally because we were really showing: Don’t give up, there’s hope. Money put into emissions control is money well spent, because we see responses.”
Environmentalists were the catalysts of change in North America, says Norman Yan, a biology professor at York University.
“There were sort of four big problems that started the environmental movement, and acid rain was one of them,” he says. (The others were DDT, lead pollution and the death of the Great Lakes. “We’ve actually made pretty good progress on all of them,” says Yan.)
Acid rain was a proxy for air pollution, since emissions — primarily sulphur and nitrogen oxides, by-products of ore smelting and fossil fuel combustion — combined with water vapour in the atmosphere to form sulphuric and other acids. When they descended in rainfall, they acidified lakes and streams, which killed plankton and eventually fish.
The smelters in Sudbury, including Inco, the giant nickel smelter, laid waste to the immediate surroundings. After Inco constructed its “Superstack” chimney in the 1970s, emissions decreased near Sudbury, but could be detected far downwind.
The long-range effects of air pollution worked in both directions. Fish die-off in Ontario lakes was attributed to emissions south of the border, as well.
But Canada had the dubious distinction of emitting twice as much sulphur dioxide per capita than the U.S., in part thanks to Sudbury.
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