Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999
Annual Report to Parliament for April 2020 to March 2021: chapter 2

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2. Monitoring the environment and human health

Monitoring and surveillance activities allow experts to determine levels and trends of chemicals, air pollutants and wastes that may affect the environment and/or human health.

2.1 Chemicals in our environment

A broad range of monitoring activities for chemicals were conducted under the following programs:

Monitoring activities also support Canada’s contribution to international efforts, including the:

In particular, the CMP Environmental Monitoring and Surveillance Program involves the collection of data on the concentration of chemical substances in various environmental media across Canada (see Table 1). Environmental media include surface water, sediment, air, aquatic biota and wildlife. Wastewater system influent, effluent and biosolids are also monitored across a range of input and treatment system types. These activities provide data to inform the assessment and management of chemical substances in the environment.

Table 1: Substances monitored in indicated media under the CMP Environmental Monitoring and Surveillance Program in 2020-2021
Air Surface water Fish (whole body tissue)
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs)
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)*
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
Other flame retardants Other flame retardants Other flame retardants
Organochlorine pesticides Organochlorine pesticides Organochlorine pesticides*
Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and metabolites Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and metabolites Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and metabolites*
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) Chlorinated alkanes
Chlorinated alkanes Metals* Metals (including mercury)
Metals* BPA + alternatives Organosiloxanes
n/a Alkylphenols n/a

* Sampled in Great Lakes Basin only.

In 2020-2021, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) conducted limited monitoring and surveillance activities due to the pandemic and related suspension of some of the laboratory and fieldwork. For some environmental media like air, wildlife and aquatic biota, external collaborators did a portion of the sampling and sample analysis. For other media (such as, sediments) and for wastewater and biosolids, there was no sampling done due to restrictions on fieldwork. However, there was significant progress made on data analysis and reporting, through publication of manuscripts, for many CMP priority substances and/or groups of substances monitored in all environmental media as well as in wastewater and biosolids.

2.2 Chemicals in humans

Health Canada’s (HC) human biomonitoring efforts continued in 2020-2021 with the national biomonitoring program conducted under the Canadian Health Measures Survey (CHMS), measuring environmental chemical exposures in a nationally representative sample of Canadians aged 3 to 79 years. Although ongoing collection of the CHMS was halted due to modernization efforts at Statistics Canada and subsequently due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the national biomonitoring program used samples collected in previous years to measure priority substances.

Other activities of the CHMS in 2020-2021 included the following:

In addition, 82 journal articles that used the CHMS data were published during 2020-2021 with 23 articles authored by Health Canada researchers and the remainder authored by external researchers.

In December 2020, the first Report on Human Biomonitoring of Environmental Chemicals in Pooled Samples - Results of the Canadian Health Measures Survey Cycle 1 (2007 to 2009), Cycle 3 (2012 to 2013), Cycle 4 (2014 to 2015) and Cycle 5 (2016 to 2017) was released. This report presents the first set of pooled serum data from the national biomonitoring program collected as part of the CHMS and is the first nationally representative dataset in blood for these specific 90 persistent environmental chemicals.

The Maternal-Infant Research on Environmental Chemicals (MIREC) Study was established in 2007 to obtain national biomonitoring data for pregnant women and their infants, and to examine possible adverse health effects of prenatal exposure to environmental chemicals on pregnancy and infant health. There are several follow-up studies under the MIREC Research Platform, including:

HC continued analysis and publication of biomonitoring and research results from the MIREC Research Platform. The assessment of prenatal exposure to chemicals and establishment of national estimates of maternal and fetal exposures continued under MIREC (see section for publications).

In 2020-2021, progress was made on the follow-up study MIREC-ENDO initiated in 2018 to study the effects of prenatal exposure to environmental chemicals on puberty and metabolic function in the child, as well as maternal health. In 2020-2021, participant recruitment, data collection and laboratory analysis of collected biospecimens were completed for Phase 1. The participant recruitment plan was revised to a questionnaire-based model due to COVID-19 restrictions, and was completed at home without in-person visits. Through the questionnaire, 437 families were recruited in Phase 1 and another 307 families have indicated interest. Phase 2 will be launched in the spring of 2022.

Monitoring in the North

Both ECCC and HC contribute to the Northern Contaminants Program (NCP) led by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC). HC partners with CIRNAC on the human health component of the NCP, which addresses concerns about human exposure to elevated levels of contaminants in wildlife species important to the traditional diets of northern Indigenous peoples. In 2020-2021, HC supported 5 human biomonitoring and health projects under the NCP. These projects addressed exposure to contaminants and links to country foods, nutritional status in multiple northern regions (Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavik), and the development and evaluation of health communication tools.

ECCC has been a major contributor in monitoring abiotic media, aquatic biota and wildlife, as well as Arctic ecosystem health. ECCC monitors wildlife at numerous sites across the Canadian Arctic on a biennial or annual basis under the NCP, for a large suite of legacy and new Chemicals of Emerging Arctic Concern (CEACs), as well as metals, including mercury.

2.3 Air pollutants and greenhouse gases monitoring

Monitoring and reporting activities are important for identifying and tracking levels and trends of air pollutants that impact both the environment and human health, as well as greenhouse gases that impact climate change.

Air pollution

Ambient (outdoor) air quality monitoring informs air quality management in Canada, including tracking progress relative to the Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards. The data is used for validation of numerical air quality prediction models, for evaluating the benefits and effectiveness of control measures, as well as for assessments of the impact of air pollution on Canadians and the environment. ECCC monitors ambient air quality across the country through 2 complementary networks.

Data collected through NAPS, CAPMoN and other provincial, territorial and municipal monitoring stations are used to calculate air quality indicators. The air quality indicators track ambient concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), ground-level ozone (O3), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at the national, regional and urban levels, and at local monitoring stations.

Additional air pollutant monitoring carried out by ECCC includes the following networks:

The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI)

Data collected through these programs are used to determine the AQHI. It is a scale designed to help people understand what the air quality around them means to their health. The AQHI is calculated based on the relative risks of a combination of common air pollutants that are known to harm human health. These pollutants are:

  • ozone (O3) at ground level
  • particulate matter (PM2.5/PM10)
  • nitrogen dioxide (NO2)

The AQHI is a health protection tool designed to help people make decisions to protect their health by limiting short-term exposure to air pollution and adjusting their activity levels during increased levels of air pollution. It also provides advice on how people can improve the quality of the air they breathe.

Greenhouse gases

The Canadian Greenhouse Gas Monitoring Program includes observations of carbon dioxide and other GHGs from 16 long-term measurement sites across Canada (Figure 2). Among the sites is the Alert Global Atmosphere Watch Observatory. Alert serves as one of 3 global GHG inter-comparison sites to ensure consistent measurement of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas concentrations across the world.

Figure 2: Canadian Greenhouse Gas Measurement Program monitoring sites

Figure 2. Canadian Greenhouse Gas Measurement Program monitoring sites
Long description for Figure 2

This map shows the 16 Environment and Climate Change Canada long term monitoring sites for the Canadian Greenhouse Gas Measurement Program: Inuvik, NT; Behchoko, NT; Cambridge Bay, NU; Alert, NU; Estevan Point, BC; Abbotsford, BC; Lac La Biche, AB; Esther, AB; Bratt’s Lake, SK; East Trout Lake, SK; Churchill, MB; Fraserdale, ON; Egbert, ON; Downsview, ON; Chapais, QC; Sable Island, NS.

ECCC makes its atmospheric monitoring data available to the public through national and international databases, including the Government of Canada Open Data Portal; World Meteorological Organization (WMO); World Data Centres for GHGs; WMO World Data Centre for Precipitation Chemistry; and the WMO World Ozone and Ultraviolet Data Centre, which is operated by the Meteorological Service of Canada.

Measurements of atmospheric CO2 and Ch4 at Alert, Nunavut

Measurements of atmospheric CO2 began in March 1975 at Alert, Nunavut (Figure 3). The annual average CO2 value at Alert in 2020 was 414.9 parts per million (ppm), which is slightly higher than the annual average CO2 values at Alert in 2019 and 2018 which were 412.0 ppm and 409.5 ppm, respectively.

ECCC began measuring atmospheric methane (CH4) in August 1985 at Alert, Nunavut (Figure 4). The annual average CH4 value at Alert in 2020 was 1967.7 parts per billion (ppb). The rate of annual increase in CH4 concentrations showed a steady decline in the late 1980s and hovered around zero from 1999 to 2006, reflecting a near global balance between emissions and removal by atmospheric chemical processes. Since 2007, CH4 has increased every year on average by 6 ppb per year until very recently. In 2019 and 2020, the annual change in CH4 at Alert has significantly jumped by 10.4 and 16.7 ppb respectively.

Figure 3: Atmospheric carbon dioxide

Figure 3. atmospheric carbon dioxide measured at Alert, Nunavut
Long description for Figure 3

This graph shows the monthly mean, annual cycle and trend of atmospheric carbon dioxide measured at Alert, Nunavut from 1975 to 2020. The graph indicates that carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere has been rising rapidly since 1975. The red line indicates the average upward trend, while the blue line shows annual fluctuations. Annual fluctuations are due to the fact that carbon dioxide decreases during the summer in Northern Hemisphere, as plant growth absorbs carbon from the atmosphere; and increases during the winter.

Figure 4: Atmospheric methane measured at Alert, Nunavut

Figure 4. atmospheric methane measured at Alert, Nunavut
Long description for Figure 4

This graph shows the monthly mean, annual cycle and trend of atmospheric methane measured at Alert, Nunavut from 1985 to 2020. The graph indicates that the rate of annual increase in CH4 concentrations steadily declined since the late 1980s and hovered around zero from 1999 to 2006, reflecting a near global balance between emissions and removal by atmospheric chemical processes. Since 2007, CH4 increased every year on average by 6 ppb per year, until 2019 and 2020 when the annual change jumped by 10.4 and 16.7 ppb respectively. The red line indicates the average upward trend, while the blue line shows annual fluctuations.

2.4 Disposal at sea site monitoring program

By monitoring disposal sites, ECCC is able to verify that the permitting of disposals at sea is sustainable and that permit holders can have continued access to suitable sites. Where monitoring indicates a problem or where the site has reached its capacity over time, management action in the form of closing, moving or altering the site use can occur.

In 2020-2021, monitoring projects were completed at 9 ocean disposal sites nationally, which amounts to monitoring 13% of the 71 actively used sites. Due to the restrictions on fieldwork resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, many field-monitoring projects were cancelled or postponed.

Pacific region

Field work was largely cancelled in Pacific Region in 2020-2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions for staff working on ships. However, partnerships with other agencies did allow for some sediment sampling in and around the Sandheads and Point Grey disposal sites, in Southern Resident Killer Whale habitat. These samples were analyzed for an extensive suite of chemicals, including polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and microplastics, to generate new data in support of the Government of Canada’s Whales Initiative. The Disposal at Sea program’s participation in this five-year initiative (2018 to 2022), including data analysis, is ongoing and results will be reported when data analysis is completed.

Highlight - use of Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler

In 2019-2020, Natural Resources Canada and ECCC embarked on a research project to deploy an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP) on the seafloor at the Point Grey disposal site to collect seasonal current velocity and directional information 1 m above the seafloor over a 1-year period. The objective of this monitoring was to characterize the movement of sediment over time at and around the disposal footprint. Results of this seafloor monitoring show that the Point Grey site is non-dispersive, meaning the material is likely to remain within the disposal footprint following disposal. The use of the ADCP was proven to be very useful and is now deployed for a 1-year period at the Sandheads disposal site to gain a more nuanced understanding of the movement of sediment at that site.

Quebec region

In 2020-2021, a total of 6 disposal sites were monitored in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence off the coast of the province of Quebec; 2 in the Gaspé region and 4 near the Magdalen Islands (see Table 2). Post-disposal hydrographic surveys were conducted at these sites and compared to the results of previous surveys, providing a “before and after” survey of the sea floor.

The 2 sites monitored in the Gaspé region, PD-6 and SG-2, had a previously identified pattern of not being able to find the material that was disposed of in that location. This raised concerns that the material was in fact being disposed of outside the disposal sites’ boundaries. Investigations and preliminary conversations with the permit holder have suggested that incorrect coordinates may have been entered in the GPS of an inexperienced contractor. As a result, new measures, such as requiring contractors to register the coordinates of each disposal, have been put in place. The investigation continued in 2020-2021 in order to resolve the issue for future permits.

Table 2: Results of monitoring disposal at sea sites off the coast of Quebec in 2020-2021
Disposal site Results of hydrographic surveys Comments
Port-Daniel-Est (PD-6) No material detected at disposal site even though permittee reported that 2 927 m3 of material had been disposed of at this site Unexpected result. Continued annual hydrographic surveys recommended.
Saint-Godefroi (SG-2) No material detected at disposal site even though permittee reported that 1 777 m3 of material had been disposed of at this site Unexpected result. Since 2013, more than 16 500 m3 has been disposed of at this site but not detected. New coordinate registration requirements and a new contractor in 2019 have not resolved this issue. Continued annual hydrographic surveys recommended.
IE-6 3 134 m3 of material was detected, more than 1 000 m3 greater than the 2 115 m3 expected Unexpected result. This may be due to the creation of a “sand trap” at site, or sediment dynamic being slightly different over the past year. The depth of the site is still safe for navigation. Annual hydrographic surveys recommended.
GI-2 No material detected at disposal site Expected result as it is a highly dispersive site. The depth is still safe for navigation and another hydrographic survey in 5 years is recommended.
PBCM-1 43 087 m3 was detected, almost exactly equal to the expected amount of 42 888 m3 Expected result. Site is very stable. The portion of the site currently in use is approaching its capacity for safe navigation; therefore consideration is being given to opening an unused section of the site. Annual hydrographic surveys recommended.
Dépôt E Nearly 93% of the 207 300 m3 disposed of the site was detected Expected result. A dispersion pattern for disposal of material was used at this site in 2020 to fill in sections of the site, rather than creating a single mound. The site is stable and still safe for navigation. A follow up hydrographic survey is recommended in 2 years.

Atlantic region

In 2020-2021, a single hydrographic monitoring survey was conducted in August 2020 at the Black Point disposal site off the coast of New Brunswick. The survey results were used to assess changes to the footprint and the height of accumulated disposed material at the disposal site. The elevation of accumulated material was assessed to determine whether it is less than 7m above the 1959 baseline elevation. The 7m threshold was selected as a conservative navigational criterion.

Repetitive hydrographic surveys at the Black Point disposal site have shown significant sediment build-up. It appears that sediment has travelled and settled in a south-southwest direction surpassing the disposal site boundary. It also appears that disposed material accumulation is nearing or exceeding 7 m in height throughout most of the seabed under the 2017-2020 release zone. Based on these observations, it was decided to move disposal activities to a new release zone commencing in January 2021. In order to better understand the changes to the disposed material footprint, the area to be surveyed in 2021 will be increased beyond that of the 2020 survey. Analysis of the results of the 2019 physico-chemical and biological studies at the Black Point disposal site are still underway.

2.5 Water quality monitoring

Freshwater quality monitoring has been a core ECCC program since the Department’s inception in the early 1970s. The Department’s monitoring and surveillance activities are critical for assessing and reporting on water quality status and trends in addition to fulfilling federal domestic and international commitments and legislative obligations. Much of the Program’s monitoring is carried out through federal-provincial/territorial agreements, ensuring cost-effective and non-duplicative program delivery.

ECCC’s Freshwater Quality Monitoring program continues to implement a risk-based adaptive management framework in conjunction with statistical analyses to better target monitoring activities to the risks of contaminants and human activities in Canadian watersheds. The approach has been used to optimize monitoring locations and adjust monitoring frequencies relative to the environmental risks and to report on changes in environmental condition. The program continues to monitor chemicals of concern in water, sediments and aquatic biota at national sites across Canada in support of the Chemicals Management Plan.

In 2020, ECCC’s Freshwater Quality Monitoring and Surveillance (FWQMS) program completed an analysis of cadmium concentrations and trends in sediments, water, and fish. This analysis supports performance measurement and reporting for the CMP across Canada.

FWQMS also supports CMP priorities through the Monitoring and Surveillance Working Group. In February 2021, members of the working group published a multimedia analysis of Bisphenol A (BPA) in the Canadian environmentFootnote 1 , which recommended monitoring of surface water for future trends of BPA in the environment, identified wastewater discharge impacts, and evaluated the efficacy of Canadian actions in reducing environmental concentrations.

Please see the Canada Water Act Annual Report for an update on freshwater quality monitoring in Canada.

2.6 Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators

The Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators (CESI) program reports on key environmental sustainability issues including climate change, air quality, water quality and availability, wildlife, biodiversity, habitat, pollution, waste and toxic substances. It is designed to convey the state of Canada’s environment, including historical trends, in a straightforward and transparent manner. CESI is used to provide citizens, Parliamentarians, policy makers and researchers with comprehensive, unbiased and authoritative environmental information. The CESI program responds to ECCC's commitments under CEPA and the Department of the Environment Act to report to Canadians on the state of the environment and is the prime instrument to measure progress on the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy.

ECCC prepares the indicators through close collaboration with science and data experts across the federal government, including in Health Canada, Statistics Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, as well as relevant provincial and territorial counterparts. The data used to calculate indicators originate from a variety of sources, including surveys, measurement networks and other research initiatives that are expected to be maintained and updated for the foreseeable future.

The indicators are published on the CESI website showing national and regional results along with the methodology explaining each indicator and links to related socio-economic issues and information. CESI also has an interactive map that enables the user to quickly explore Canada's local and regional environmental indicators. The indicators and their corresponding datasets are also published in the Government of Canada Open Data Portal.

Table 3: Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators (CESI) updates and new releases in 2020-2021
Month Indicators
April 2020
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from large facilities
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Global greenhouse gas emissions
July 2020*
  • Population exposure to outdoor air pollutants
  • Bisphenol A in water and sediment
  • Snow cover in Canada
  • Drinking water advisories
  • Pulp and paper effluent quality
  • Canada's conserved areas
  • Temperature change in Canada
  • Sustainability of timber harvest
  • Carbon dioxide emissions from a consumption perspective
August 2020
  • Restoring the Great Lakes Areas of Concern
September 2020
  • Phosphorous levels in the offshore waters of the Great Lakes
  • Human exposure to harmful substances
October 2020
  • Phosphorus loading to Lake Erie
  • Land-based greenhouse gas emissions and removals
November 2020
  • Air pollutant emissions
  • Reductions in phosphorus loads to Lake Winnipeg
  • Monitoring disposal at sea
  • Metal and diamond mining effluent quality
  • Ecological integrity of national parks
  • Shellfish harvest area quality
December 2020
  • Emissions of harmful substances to air
  • Changes in the status of species at risk
  • Species at risk population trends
  • Eelgrass in Canada
  • Municipal wastewater treatment
  • Plastic particles in the Northern Fulmar
January 2021
  • Releases of harmful substances to water
  • Nutrients in the St. Lawrence River
  • Number of long-term drinking water advisories on public systems on reserve
February 2021
  • Sea ice in Canada
  • Management of Canadian aquaculture
March 2021
  • Population exposure to outdoor pollutants
  • Sustainable fish harvest
  • Progress towards Canada's greenhouse gas emissions reduction target

Note: * Due to COVID-19 restrictions including a publication blackout in the spring, the release of some indicators was delayed to July.

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