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Throwback Thursday: Sleuthing Toronto's smog

  • Nov 25, 2015
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Canadian Geographic has published its fair share of stories about the environment. But with the UN Climate Change Conference just around the corner, we decided to look back at one of our award-winning pieces.

“Smog Sleuth”, a feature story in the May/June 2003 issue of Canadian Geographic, won Gold prize in the National Magazine Awards for Health & Medicine the year it was published [Read it here]. It tells the story of Tom Hutchinson, one of Canada’s leading ecologists, as he hunts down the source of Toronto’s drifting air pollution.

Hutchinson is known for making huge strides in the study of air pollution, acid rain, ozone and toxic metals on forests. But when he had moved out of Toronto to quiet Peterborough, he’d thought he was escaping the claustrophobic smog, only to find that it had followed him and was disrupting the forests and soil of his bucolic paradise.

“Tom was really the first person to make the connection between what was happening in the air and the soil contamination,” says Keith Winterhalder, a retired biology professor from Laurentian University, in the piece. Hutchinson’s air pollution monitoring helped bring in a whole new appreciation for cooperating across specialities, not to mention for lichen, which can act as canaries in the coal mine for the air health.

The impassioned researcher and advocate took home this lesson: “You’ve got to get your science right,” he told writer Marci McDonald. “If you don’t, they’re going to drive a coach and horse all over it.”

Although he retired two years after the story hit newsstands, Hutchinson has continued to do research and teach the next generation of scientists at his beloved Trent University.

His legacy goes beyond the classroom. Nearly fifteen years after Hutchinson first tried growing vegetables on the flat roof of the Environmental Studies Centre—the plants’ lacklustre success sparked decades of study and feisty quarrelling with Toronto’s major air polluting companies of the time—this rooftop garden now supplies organic, locally-grown food to the student-run Seasoned Spoon campus cafe.


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