Sunday, August 26, 2007

Toxic Toys, Toxic Trade

Last week's recall of nearly 900,000 Mattel Inc. products was the second major recall of dangerous toys this month. This most recent involved popular items including a variety of Doggie Day Care, Polly Pocket, Barbie and Tanner and Batman toys, as well as "Sarge" die cast cars. The toys were pulled off the shelf because of concerns about lead paint poisoning and a choking hazard due to small magnets coming loose. The earlier recall was for Fisher-Price toys, which included an assortment of Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street toys. Once again, the concern was that the hard surfaces of the toys could contain excessive levels of lead.

In every case, the toys were manufactured in China, which has prompted critics to accuse the government of failing to protect Canadian consumers. In question are Canada's Environmental Protection Act and the Hazardous Products Act, both of which are badly in need of updating. Canada's Lead Reduction Strategy, which falls under the jurisdiction of Health Canada, was reviewed a decade ago, but none of the six original objectives of the review was met, according to the Canadian Environmental Law Association’s Kathy Cooper.

Canada's Auditor General has been critical of the federal government's failure to protect its citizens since 1997. In 1999, Canada's Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Brian Emmett said, "Understanding the risks posed by toxic substances is the first step toward protecting Canadians. But the federal government's knowledge of their effects is incomplete and the risks are still unknown. Furthermore, the departments responsible for managing the risks are themselves deeply divided on how it should be done. They even disagree on the importance of the risks."

Three years later in 2002, Emmett's successor, Johanne Gelinas, warned that the management of toxic substances remained inadequate. Five more years later, millions of toys that are readily available on store shelves have been identified as potential toxic health hazards to our most vulnerable of citizens - our children.

While the government has an undeniable responsibility to protect its citizens, those same citizens have an inherent responsibility to become a lot more discriminating about what they buy and where they buy it.

The problem is that consumers have been seduced by the cheap availability of just about everything, thanks to global trade and retailing giants like Wal-Mart. The world's largest corporation and biggest retailer got that way by relying heavily on the cheap labor and lower environmental standards in China, where a whopping 70 percent of Wal-Mart's goods are made. In 2004 alone this translated into $18 billion worth of goods.

"If Wal-Mart were an individual economy," said Xu Jun, Wal-Mart China's director of external affairs in China Business Weekly, "It would rank as China's eighth-biggest trading partner, ahead of Russia, Australia and Canada." This is the very same China that is notorious for its human rights violations and environmental practices.

According to a briefing document, China's Environmental Crisis, prepared by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, "Sixteen of the world's twenty most polluted cities are in China." One third of China's population lacks access to clean drinking water, thanks to industrial pollution. With its heavy dependence on fossil fuels, China is poised to overtake the United States as world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

If Canadians are really concerned about toxic toys and other potential health threats posed by consumer goods, then they need to take a Latin lesson. Caveat emptor - "Let the buyer beware" - has never been more relevant. Everyday low prices are just a very small part of the real cost we pay for buying cheap consumer goods.


The background report, China's Environmental Crisis, can be found on the Council on Foreign Relations website.

For a preview of Robert Greenwald’s controversial film, Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price go to

For a more humorous perspective, check out Big Box Mart and other socially relevant (and really funny) videos at

As of this writing, Health Canada had not posted the list of recalled toys on its website. However, you can find the complete list on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission website.

The list of recalled Mattel and Fisher-Price toys is also available at

Understanding the Risks from Toxic Substances: Cracks in the Foundation of the Federal House, Managing the Risks of Toxic Substances: Obstacles to Progress, and Toxic Substances Revisited, are chapters from the Auditor General's reports and available on Office of the Auditor General of Canada website.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Water Crisis

On Saturday, August 4th, NASA successfully launched the unmanned Phoenix Mars Lander. Its primary mission is to search the red planet's arctic region in search of water, proof that the now dead surface might have once supported life.

In another news story, it was recently reported that the water levels in Lake Superior have dropped an astounding 30 centimeters over the past year. Scientists believe that a dramatic rise in lake temperatures, which have averaged 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1979, is responsible for increasing the rate of evaporation from Superior’s once icy waters. The apparent culprit: climate change.

It's important to note that Lake Superior is the largest and deepest of the Great Lakes, which are collectively the largest single source of fresh water in the world. At present, this translates into 20 percent of our global supply.

These two seemingly unrelated water stories should scare the indifference out of anyone who doesn't think we have anything to worry about. Water is an essential element of life. A healthy human can live for a month without food, but will die in less than a week without water. We live by the grace of water. Only the air that we breathe is more critical to our survival.

In recent years there has been much concern about our dwindling oil reserves. In recent decades, wars in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan have been about oil. But despite the horror of these conflicts, they will be nothing compared to the wars we will see in this century over water. The United Nations estimates that by 2025 as much as two-thirds of the world's population will be living in conditions of serious water shortage. One third will be living in conditions of absolute water scarcity. It has been predicted that the wars of the 21st century will be about water.

Many parts of the planet are already engaged in a battle for existence. At present, 1.1 billion people lack adequate access to clean drinking water. In India, some households spend as much as 25 percent of their income on water. In some parts of Mexico, water is so scarce that children drink imported Coke and Pepsi instead of water. More than five million people, most of them children, die every year from illnesses caused by drinking poor quality water.

Half of the more than six billion plus souls who dwell here - an estimated 3 billion people - don't have enough water for basic sanitation - washing, bathing, and flushing waste.

Despite this, our global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years, more than twice the rate of human population growth and Canadians are among the heaviest users. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Canada ranks a dismal 28th among the 29 nations in terms of per capita water consumption. The biggest users are our American cousins to the south.
The OECD reports that Canadians use 1,600 cubic meters of water per person per year, which is 65 percent above the OECD average, or twice the amount used by the French, and four times the amount used by the Swedes.

The good news is that conserving water can also help to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, the primary cause of climate change, a major factor in dwindling water reserves. The little known reason is that almost two-thirds of the energy consumed by municipalities is used to pump water.

As individuals we can begin by installing low-flow showerheads and toilets, taking shorter showers, only watering our lawns once a week, and replacing appliances with water and energy efficient models as needed. As global citizens, we can contribute to programs that bring water to areas of this parched Earth where doing something as common as taking a shower is as alien as the surface of Mars.


Water is a gift worth sharing. Donate to

The United Nations has proclaimed 2005 to 2015 the International Decade for Action: Water for Life. Check out

For more on Canada’s environmental performance, read Canada vs. The OECD: An Environmental Comparison, which can be found at

Maude Barlow’s report, Blue Gold: The global water crisis and the commodification of the world's water supply, should be required reading for everyone. It is available from Council of Canadians.

Letter Written in 2070 is a dramatic slide presentation of what a future world would be without water. It can be found at is an excellent global water conservation portal and search engine.

NASA’s has a wonderful interactive website filled with information for kids, adults and space fans of all ages.

On the Road to Conservation

So we finally all agree. Human activity is causing major problems with the environment and we all need to help clean it up.

According to Confucius, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." The good news is that we've already made several big steps in the right direction. Most of us use our blue boxes, and green bin programs are being embraced wherever they are available. Thanks to our icon of environmentalism, David Suzuki, we're also getting the message about changing our light bulbs to compact fluorescents. The question now becomes, "What’s next?"

Enter Chris Winter, Executive Director of the Conservation Council of Ontario. I've known Chris for almost 20 years and have to admit he is one of the brightest lights in the otherwise depressing world of environmentalism. Chris has a boundless amount of energy, ideas and optimism and a generosity of spirit that willingly shares all three.

Chris is the mastermind of the Conservation Council's latest project, iconserve, the natural evolution of the We Conserve movement launched two years ago. What this latest project does is move the onus from collective responsibility to personal ownership. In typical Chris Winter style, iconserve says, "Don't be perfect. Just better."

The idea of continuous, measured improvement is something we can all embrace. It doesn't really matter where we join the road toward sustainability, what matters is that we all move forward. According to Chris, it's much like starting an exercise program.

"You don't run a marathon the day after you get off the couch. It takes time and a commitment to regular improvement," states the We Conserve website, "Set yourself realistic goals. Do the simple and money-saving things first, and then decide how much time and money you wish to invest in becoming a better conserver."

The goal of iconserve is to first measure where you are now in the top ten conservation actions, then rate yourself (on a scale from 1 to 10) and then set a goal of where you want to be. While each action has a number of suggested changes, they are only there to get the creative juices going. Just like training for a marathon, once you get started you'll find your own unique ways to go the distance. Here's a partial list for starters (cut this out and stick it on your refrigerator, or download the complete list and rating card from We Conserve):

1. Save Energy - Change your lights, turn things off, get an energy audit, air dry your clothes.

2. Use Green Power - Buy green power, install solar panels, join a green power co-op.

3. Help nature - Grow native species, use a rain-barrel, help with community gardens and local habitat.

4. Drive less - Walk, ride a bike, or take transit, join a car-sharing network, buy a hybrid or fuel-efficient car.

5. Live local - Live, work, shop and play within a walkable, mixed-use community. For rural homes, be self-reliant.

6. Eat local - Eat local and/or organic food, try the 100-mile diet, eat more vegetarian meals.

7. Buy green - Buy environmentally-friendly products, invest responsibly.

8. Waste less - Practice the 3Rs, avoid excess packaging and plastic bags, compost food waste.

9. Prevent pollution - Make your home and yard toxic-free, dispose of hazardous materials safely, use a green dry cleaner.

10. Support conservation - Donate to conservation, support community projects, volunteer.

Granted that it's great to set goals, but some of us need the help of a personal trainer to actual move from thought to positive action. To quote Confucius again, "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."

To get help with the doing, The We Conserve website is loaded with tips, links, suggestions and resources. Once you've got your own program up and running, spread the word by emailing your friends, or by ordering iconserve cards and distributing them at your office, local store or in your community.

You can also pick up iconserve cards at The Beer Stores across Ontario for the month of August. While you're at it, donate your bottle returns to We Conserve at the in-store coin boxes.

"We're all in this together," according to We Conserve, "And together, we might just be able to make a difference."

RELATED WEBSITES has everything you need to move forward on the conservation journey.

For those who need a little inspiration, Famous Quotes DB is an amazing searchable database.


It has been 18 years since my local newspaper, The Oshawa Times, ran my very first column. I had no journalistic training, but I managed to convince the paper's editor that I had something to say. I told myself that this was my golden opportunity to change the world. A good friend advised me that the responsibility of a good columnist was to "inform and incite" and I took his counsel to heart.

My initial foray into the world of journalism wasn't exactly Earth shattering (or saving, for that matter.) My first column was a lengthy and poorly written piece about biodegradable plastic bags, but it was a beginning, and marked a profound change in my life's journey. It hangs framed above my desk in my office, a constant reminder of both the opportunity it presented, and the need to constantly hone my art.

Much has happened in the ensuing years. If my column were a child, it would have very recently celebrated its passage into adulthood. And while I would like to think that my writing has matured over the years, the need to "inform and incite" is a thousand times greater than it was less than two decades ago.

What little progress we have made in areas such as recycling and energy conservation has been outstripped by our seemingly endless need for more, better, and newer stuff. Consider the following:

The average size of a new house has increased dramatically over the last twenty years. In 1984, the average home was about 162.2 square meters (or approximately 1,745 square feet). By 2003, that had increased to 227.6 square meters (approximately 2,450 square feet).

Twenty years ago, virtually no one carried a cell phone. Today we discard between 100 and 150 million cell phones annually.

Ditto for personal computers. In 1943, Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM stated, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” In 2004 more than 1.5 million computers were discarded in Ontario alone. Only two per cent of these were diverted away from landfills.

It's important to note that we don't discard computers and cell phones because they no longer work. We constantly want to upgrade to newer and more powerful technologies.

While we have made significant improvements in fuel efficiency over the last few decades, more of us are driving larger cars, longer distances. The net result is that fuel consumption has increased dramatically. For example, in the UK from 1970 to 2000, the amount of energy consumed by the transportation sector increased by 87 percent. Road transportation increased by more than 90 percent during this period, and air transportation increased an incredible 130 percent.

Our planet - our only home - is paying the price for all of this self-indulgence and so are we. We are fatter, lazier and unhealthier than any generation in history. We have so much stuff that our monster homes can no longer contain all of it, making storage companies the newest growth industry. We have moved past the tipping point of climate change. At this point all we can do is grab onto something solid and hang on for the ride.

In short, we have matured little in the last 18 years. As Guy Dauncey wrote recently in his landmark essay, Choosing the Lightness of Planetary Childhood, "We are the binge generation - the ones who wanted it all. We are the last of the innocents who believed that this tiny Earth, floating in the vastness of space, could provide for all our wants, however wild or stupid."

It's time we grew up and starting taking responsibility for our actions. What I have learned over the last 18 years is that one individual may not have the power to save the world, but we each have a part to play. In the words of Edward Everett Hale, "I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something I can do."


Where there’s life there’s hope. Visit Guy Dauncey's inspiration website, provides consumers in Canada and the U.S. with information about cell phone recycling locations and other community-specific recycling, reuse and environmental programs. is an award-winning program of the Canadian Association of Food Banks that recycles used cell phones and printer cartridges. The proceeds are returned to the local food banks from where the phones and cartridges were donated.


My husband and I are stargazers. Sometimes, on a particularly clear night, we lie in the middle of our driveway and look up at the night sky. We are blessed with a few acres of property, far enough away from the city lights so we can actually see the stars. We are also blessed with an abundance of trees. Our long driveway is the only place where their magnificent canopy doesn’t block our view of the night sky.

This wonderful ritual began more than twenty years ago, shortly after we were married. The evening before our weekly garbage pick up we'd carry our trash and recycling out to the end of our long driveway. As we'd turn back toward the house, Brian would announce that we couldn't go back inside until we'd spotted a satellite. Being a city kid, I didn't even know you could see a satellite with the naked eye. I'd strain my head backwards, searching the heavens for movement, when Brian would say, "Look, there's one!" By the time I located my own satellite, Brian would have spotted a half-a-dozen or more gleaming points of light and my neck would be aching from craning my head backward. Eventually, I just gave up and lay down right in the middle of the driveway.

If it's a particularly warm, clear night, we'll sometimes grab an old blanket or sleeping bag and gaze up at the heavens for hours, feeling at once both very small and very much a part of something infinite. We hunt the night sky for constellations, satellites, high-flying jets and planets. We've seen shooting stars, meteorite showers and even a comet or two. When Canada's first astronaut in space, Dr. Mark Garneau, took his maiden voyage on Challenger, we got up early in the morning to wave at him as the shuttle flew over our house. One particular summer we were entertained for several nights in a row by an unusually vivid showing of the northern lights. Rather than simply dancing on the horizon, the colored flares reached up to the apex of the sky where they joined together and formed a giant cathedral of light. It was breathtaking.

Occasionally while we're lying there Brian will casually mention that there is absolutely nothing between us and the stars above.

"You have to admit that we're awfully brave being out here with nothing between us and the stars," he'll say. "If the law of gravity were repealed right now we'd simply float out into the heavens."

The thought is both frightening and reassuring. During the course of our busy lives it's easy to lose our sense of connection to the Universe. On nights when the stars are shining above all it takes is a few minutes of gentle observation to reconnect to something much greater than our individual selves. We are, after all, star stuff. Our bodies contain the same essential elements that make up the stars in the heavens above. We are all part of the greater whole - never alone, even on the darkest of nights.

Summer is a particularly great time of year to gaze at the stars. The nights are warm and celestial events abound. In particular, there are two meteor showers visible in the night sky. According to the StarDate website, each shower is named after the constellation from where meteors appear to fall. The first, the Delta Aquarid meteor shower, occurs between July 14 to August 18, with the maximum occurrences on August 13 and 14. The second, and perhaps better known, is the Perseid meteor shower which will be most visible in the northern hemisphere on August 12th.

The key to great stargazing is to get away from artificial light sources such as streetlights and buildings. StarDate recommends that you wait for a night that is clear and dark, preferably one when the Moon is not shining brightly.

For even greater enjoyment, StarDate suggests taking along a skywatching kit that includes a blanket, binoculars, a simple star chart and a flashlight to read the chart. Covering the end of the flashlight with red paper will reduce the light’s impact on your night vision. Give your eyes about 20 minutes to adjust to the dark, lie back and enjoy the show!

RELATED WEBSITES: is the public education and outreach arm of the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. The website has loads of great information for both novice and experienced stargazers.

For more on what's new in the night sky visit NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Planet Quest. has lots of great stuff for stargazers.