Pollution Knows No Borders

Mexico, Canada and the United States have serious problems with the emission of diverse pollutants.

The three member countries of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) of North America, a body created as part of NAFTA’s environmental side agreement, are facing high rates of emissions of mercury, arsenic, and chromium, according to Orlando Cabrera, the manager of the Air Quality Program and of the Pollutant Release and Transfer Registry (PRTR) of North America.

Perhaps the most serious is the case of mercury, a toxin that bioaccumulates, and that is present in water, air, and soil. When mercury ends up in rivers or seas, it is absorbed by fish through their fatty tissues, and the fish destined for human consumption in turn affect people who eat them.

“Highly toxic pollutants are a shared concern. Mercury – either in the air or in water – is a pollutant transported through the air and deposited in water and soil, where it begins to transform. Arsenic is a natural element, it is found in the soil, we are rich in arsenic, but when it leaves where it is, it gets into the air and reaches us through our respiratory paths or it gets into our water,” he said in an interview with the Americas Program.

With the support of the CEC, over the course of a decade, nongovernmental organizations have put in place, a system of mandatory reporting of industrial wastes to monitor which companies discharge these pollutants, exactly where and in what amounts, and to relate this information to the identification of health problems. It is called the Pollutant Release and Transfer Registry (PRTR) of North America.

The instrument includes an annual report available online and in print called “Taking Stock”. Recent developments detailed in the latest report were reported at the seventeenth regular session of the CEC Council, held in Guanajuato, Guanajuato, Mexico on August 16th and 17th.

The CEC official pointed out that the PRTR now includes a map of industries, hospitals, and schools by zip code, to analyze possible correlations between reported health problems and emissions reported in the registry,

Cabrera explained that the registry supports the right of citizens to access to public information.

“The emissions registry is a database that stores information on the quantities of emissions that are going to the air, water, soil or those that are transported for recycling by industrial sources. Some records also include non-industrial sources such as vehicles or agricultural activities. The registries are public records that are updated annually, and this is a fundamental aspect of the PRTR.”

Advantages of the Pollutants Registry

“At the PRTR program in North America our goal is to develop compatibility among the pollutant registries. With this information we are seeking to gather knowledge for environmental management at all levels of government, for citizens as well, because if not, we don’t know where the sources of pollution to the environment are located, how they are being handled. It is used as a tool for the public to know if they are facing a problem, and if there is a solution at the government and industry levels to investigate the effects of pollution,” said Cabrera.

“Air pollution knows no borders and we have shared bodies of water and watershed basins, and what is discharged into them affects all three countries, and therefore for successful environmental management at the North American level, you need integrated registries for all three,” he adds.

During the Joint Committee meeting of the CEC in Guanajuato, three examples of the use of PRTR data were pointed out, one of them in Canada. In that country they have begun mapping the incidence of cancer in children related to sources of contamination of certain carcinogens.

In the case of Mexico there was a report on the municipality of El Salto, Jalisco where the population has been affected by the pollution of the Santiago River. A number of companies discharge pollutants into the water without reporting them, and some discharges do not correspond with the actual emissions. The PRTR allows people to verify if the reports are complete or not, and if they are reliable.

The CEC meeting also heard a report of a study conducted in the state of California that used the registry to analyze the correlation between sources of pollution and the location of neighborhoods where poor or vulnerable populations reside.

Each North American country has its own registry of pollution emissions with different histories. The United States began in 1986, Canada began in the mid-nineties, and the PRTR of Mexico began at the end of the same decade, but it wasn’t implemented on a mandatory basis until 2006.

Each registry has different reporting requirements. For example, the United States requires reporting on a list of about 600 pollutants, Canada around 350, and Mexico 104.

Underreporting of Pollutants

Maite Cortés García Lozano, founder of the Jalisco Ecological Collective, one of the many organizations involved in the fight for an effective PRTR provided testimony at the meeting of underreporting among polluting companies. She cited the case of the suburban industrial district of Guadalajara, El Salto, Jalisco.

“We took a look at public data, that’s what the registry is for, and we found an average of 18 companies that are reporting, out of the existing 160–of those we need to see which ones are federal, maybe not all, but we do know that there is significant underreporting. In addition we requested information from businesses that are complying. When we reviewed the data, we found which ones are reporting heavy metals, chlorinated substances, and other substances that have to be reported because they are bioaccumulative, persistent, and toxic. These are the criteria used in Mexico as well as the United States and Canada.

“In the concrete case of El Salto we know that it’s a region with the highest levels of environmental pollution and harm to the population, so that is why we are piloting the use of the tool.”

She also said that a greater culture of transparency is needed in Mexico, since many businesses are reluctant to reveal information about their pollution emissions for fear of being exposed or receiving bad publicity.

Marco Antonio Martínez García is a Mexican journalist. He is a regular contributor to the Americas Program www.cipamericas.org.