Where we live determines how great the risk may be. If you are far away from industry, such as petrochemical plants, steel mill coke ovens, the mines and the mills and the factories, then you may live longer and enjoy life. The closer one lives to industry, the greater the risk of illnesses leading to premature death.

My first exposure to air pollution was on the Canadian National Railway, approaching Toronto, in 1969. There was a yellow hue over Toronto, visible from Milton. “What the Hell is that? Is there a fire up ahead?” The Conductor replied “Oh, that’s just air pollution.” I was headed to a job in Peterborough with Canadian General Electric.

My tour of the Peterborough Works included the welding shop, more like a huge barn about 140 feet wide and 770 feet long1. It was very hard to breathe as the air was thick with welding smoke. That was where large motors and generators were fabricated.

My next job was in Sudbury, working for International Nickel Company, at various locations. The Frood-Stobie Mill ground up ore so fine, you couldn’t see it – 200 mesh.

Particles could fit through a screen mesh with 200 thin wires across and 200 thin wires up and down per square inch2. It got into the air in areas where masks were rarely seen. After getting home, it showed up in Kleenexes when you blew your nose, or coughed it up and spit black phlegm into the toilet.

The Lower Yard was the Copper Cliff Smelter. The crushed ore was heated to 2700F3 in big pots, fired with coal, natural gas, and occasional logs to burn off the sulfur. The by-product was Sulfur Dioxide gas. It combined with water vapour in the air to make Sulfuric Acid. Another building contained the Copper Flash, where ground-up copper sulfate and enriched oxygen were blasted through respective nozzles and ignited in a chamber. The molten copper fell into a pot, and the sulfur dioxide gas went up a smoke stack. I saw the 1250-foot high superstack4 being built in 1972. It would send the products of combustion very high into the sky where prevailing winds would take it far and wide, even to be detected in North Bay5.

Sulfur dioxide also combined with the water in your lungs, mouth, eyes, and sweat. Gas masks were provided that could filter out up to 100 ppm of sulfur dioxide. If the Copper Flash had a leak, the surrounding area could reach 800,000 to 900,000 ppm6 of sulfur dioxide. An alarm would sound and workers had to scramble to avoid asphyxiation, as the masks were rendered useless. Men in the Quarter Century Club looked like their faces were melting off their skulls. Most had raspy voices and could barely speak.

Needless to say, I applied for a job with Ontario Hydro in the London area. Stratford was endless fresh air, green trees, and farmland. Got transferred to Sarnia in 1974 and choked on many of the 300 vapours and particulates7 from the petrochemical refineries while reverifying billing meters. Started coughing. My Doctor said Sarnia was in the top three cities in Ontario for upper respiratory diseases. My Doctor in Sarnia smoked and died of lung cancer in his early sixties. Now and then, after the south wind blew at night, most people went to their cars and trucks in the morning to commute to work, only to find a thin layer of oily soot covering their vehicles. The night shift crews at Dow, Imperial Oil, Sun Oil (now Suncor), and Shell Refineries knew who did it, but they weren’t telling. And so, the smoke stacks were cleaned.

I applied for a position near Deep River at the Rolphton Nuclear Training Centre, and became an Electrical Instructor. God’s country! All the fresh air one could dream about. Eventually became the Union Health and Safety Representative, doing monthly tours of the training centre, looking for non-compliance conditions with respect to the Occupational Health and Safety Act and Industrial Regulations.

To enhance my effectiveness, I was sent to a Health and Safety Rep’s three-day course in downtown Toronto. It was an excellent course that covered all aspects of a H&S Rep’s duties. The afternoon of the second day featured Occupational Diseases. A Doctor from McMaster University, Hamilton, told us about the effects of asbestos, various chemicals, PPE that should be worn, air-supplied masks that should be worn, the list goes on. But then he talked about cancer.

Cancer is caused by absorbing substances in the body that alter the DNA chain in a living cell. It could be inhaling, ingesting, injection, or irradiation that cuts or alters a DNA chain. One of three things happen: (1) the cell dies and the body gets rid of it; (2) the cell does not recall what its function is and reproduces at the same rate or less as a benign growth; and (3) the cell does not recall what its function is and reproduces at a faster rate as a cancerous growth. The most sensitive instruments in the 80’s could detect cancer after 16 years. It would express itself as a lump after 20 to 25 years. There were other details about outcomes, stages, and treatments. But the thing that stayed in my mind was Hamilton.

Hamilton, in the early 1980s, was the epicenter of cancer in Canada. Sudbury, Sarnia, and Windsor were also in the running. However, this was not a contest. It was a testimony to the impact of air pollution on humans and every other living thing. Let that sink in.

Our class was told that a recent study (in the early 80’s) showed that Hamilton’s cancer rate was sixteen (16) times the national average8, and that the national average was observed sixty-four (64) miles away from Hamilton. The root cause was determined to be the emissions from the coke ovens at the steel mills. Air pollution!

Today, home stoves, home furnaces, BBQ’s, planes, trains, automobiles, trucks, boats, retail outlets, commercial establishments, industries, institutional establishments, and farms, to name a few, add to the GHG’s and toxins in the air we breathe.

To summarize, you and I risk death with every breath we breathe. The 2021 Health Canada Report9estimates that 15,300 Canadians died prematurely in 2016, from illnesses caused by air pollution. And that statistic is increasing. Today, seven (7) years later, I’d bet my bicycle it is at or over the 16,000 mark. However, we are not statistics.

No, we are collateral damage, murdered by greedy shareholders and addicts of fossil fuels. Profit over people is not a solution to pollution. But most readers already know it.


  1. Go to Google Earth Pro and zoom in on the plan view (aerial view) of the CGE Peterborough Works, 107 Park Street North. Use the ruler feature to measure the center building. The plant was closed by 2017.
  1. Gilson Company Inc. in Ohio manufactures, inter alia, USA Standard Test Sieve No. 200. They are 8in (203mm) in diameter, and made to ASTM E11 specifications. The test sieve is constructed with a No. 200 (75µm) stainless steel woven-wire cloth opening size, and a full-height 2-5/8in stainless steel frame.  
  1. Prestige Wrought Iron was found with a Google search for “smelter”. Their information states: “Steel is an iron alloy that is also used in a huge variety of ways, including for tools, cars, and other machines. The melting point of steel is between 1,371 to 1,537oC (2,500 to 2,800oF). As an alloy of iron and carbon, the “impurity” of carbon in the iron is what causes the lower melting temperature.
  1. Google “The Big Nickel and The INCo Superstack”. Information provided includes: “The nickel stands 30 feet tall and is a replica of a 1951 Canadian nickel” and “ The INCo Superstack was completed in 1972 and stands 381 metres or 1,250 feet in height”.
  1. The Copper Cliff Smelter, west of Sudbury, to North Bay is about 128 kilometres as the west wind blows. Crows no longer fly it as they find breathing is difficult.
  1. Pages 45 and 46 of the Environment Canada Report on Air Pollution and Control Technology: Primary Copper Industry – July 1982, states:

“3.2.2            Smelting. The traditional smelting unit has been the reverberatory furnace. The emissions from this furnace will normally contain 1 to 2% SO2 which can be increased to 2.5% by oxygen enrichment of the air. The gas emitted also contains substantial particulate matter. The electric furnace smelting unit has a higher SO2 concentration and a much lower volume of emissions than the reverberatory furnace.

                    Flash smelting produces SO2 concentrations as high as 80% when only oxygen is used, or 10 to 15% when no oxygen is used.” 80% is 800,000 ppm.”

  1. Air Quality in Ontario – 2003 Report, Table 23, lists 152 compounds in Sarnia’s air that are not found in clean air (oxygen, nitrogen, argon, and carbon dioxide). There were twice that number in 1975, but that data is well obscured.
  1. Reference not found, highest cancer rates in Canada are now in the eastern provinces.
  1. Health Canada: Health Impacts of Air Pollution in Canada – 2021 Report, Table 5.

Peter Nicholas is a Certified Engineering Technologist (Electrical) and Chapter Chair of the London OACETT Chapter. Peter retired from C & C Construction Group (Sarnia) in 2019 as an Electrical Manager and Safety Manager. He is a SCAN! member, on the Education Committee, Ontario Project Group, Seniors Talking Climate Working Group, and the Coordinating Committee. In his spare time, Peter is an energy advisor, a Fixer with the London Repair Café, a Dad, and a Grandpa.

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