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University of Toronto plan to build field hockey pitches for Pan Am Games puts environmental health at risk

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This is a guest post by Paul Aird.

This year, we learned that the University of Toronto’s senior administrators had secretly agreed in 2009 to convert the Back Campus from its traditional use as a commons -- a collegial gathering space accessible and enjoyed by all -- to a fenced and gated enclosure designed primarily for the exclusive use of athletes playing field hockey.

Neither the Pan/Parapan Am Games Office nor the University of Toronto administrators have released details for all to see on how the playing fields will be designed and managed, even though construction begins on July 1, 2013.

Only recently have we realized there is likely to be an environmental health risk associated with the university’s plan. According to rules set by the Pan Am Games organization, the natural turf must be replaced with synthetic turf designed specifically for playing field hockey. This turf requires frequent spraying with an algaecide added to the water to kill unwanted algae that would make the turf slippery and unsafe for play, and shorten its life. The algaecide could be left out for the Pan Am Games, but should be added later to prolong the life of the turf. The cost of building a field hockey pitch with these specifications is estimated at more than twice the cost of turfing a soccer or football field.

Half a century ago, I worked for a Canadian pulp and paper company that sprayed large forest areas with the pesticide DDT to retard the spread of the spruce budworm. What I learned then and later is that not all liquid spray falls down and drains away. Tiny droplets rise and some drift through the atmosphere for years. In 1964, DDT was found in penguins in the Antarctic and I understood why. In the 1970s, DDT was banned in many countries, including Canada, because it caused cancer in humans and other animals.

While just one spraying of pesticide per year was required to retard the spruce budworm and keep the spruce and balsam fir forests alive, two sprayings of algaecide for each field hockey game are recommended to retard algal growth. This means that the two playing fields, the atmosphere surrounding the fields, the university and beyond will be deliberately subjected to toxic spray and vapours hundreds of times each year.

What concerns me greatly is that no environmental impact study of the university’s plan has been released. For example, what are the implications of spraying the algaecide so often? The algaecide of choice is benzalkonium chloride, which is toxic to fish, other aquatic organisms and birds. It is more commonly used as a disinfectant to inhibit or kill microorganisms on objects such as surgical instruments and office floors, and is known to have caused asthma in people cleaning the instruments or washing walls and floors.

This biocide will flow from our playing fields into the sewers and then into Lake Ontario. It will rise into the air, into our buildings, into our lungs. Just tiny amounts, but it is a poison that accumulates over time.

Why have our administrators kept silent on this issue? What will the algaecide do to our athletes and to us? The plan to build the new playing field must pause until these questions have been answered. The human health issue needs to be evaluated by Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, and the wildlife health issue evaluated by the Canadian Wildlife Service.

The university’s senior administrators have evidently ignored a petition to save the back campus, signed by 5,000 members of the University of Toronto community. Five thousand undergraduate students, graduate students, support staff, research assistants, professors, deans, directors and graduates are losing trust in the governance of the university. This is a serious side effect of pushing on.

Despite the fact that the Back Campus will be converted from an enjoyable commons to a cage where people can watch only a few athletes at play, with attendant health risks for athletes and people working or living nearby, at a cost of $9.5-million to build, the university’s senior administrators plan to begin building the new playing fields on July 1, 2013.

The ‘precautionary principle’ states that when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken. A world-class university would not turn its back on this fundamental tenet of environmental health.


Paul L. Aird is a Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Forestry and former member of Governing Council, University of Toronto

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