'It started snowing Styrofoam': Residents concerned over construction site debris

When Mike Smith left his house earlier this week, he said he felt as though he'd stepped into a snow storm. 

What looked at first to be snowflakes were actually white beads of polystyrene, better known as Styrofoam, blowing around the Weston Road and Lawrence Avenue area and settling into gardens, streets and gutters. 

"It started snowing Styrofoam and the whole neighbourhood was wondering what was happening," said Smith, standing on his white-spotted front lawn. 

It didn't take long for them to identify the culprit. 

An apartment building being upgraded more than a block away at 33 King Street sent the airborne debris spreading several blocks and coating the neighbourhood.

Sabrina Jonas/CBC

"You can see it even in spider webs. It's all over everybody's porches; it's just tucked around everywhere," said Smith.

Although the debris is an eyesore for the neighbourhood, residents are more concerned about the impact on the environment.

"My real concern is that... all of this is going to wash down into the storm sewers and out into the lake," said Robert Strand, another neighbourhood resident. 

Smith's first instinct was to report the issue to the non-emergency police line, which turned out to be the first of many actions he would have to take on his own.

'Is it even possible to clean up?'

Smith said he was shocked by what he says was a lack of concern or reprimand from authorities for "the mass pollution."

He says he was told to call the City of Toronto instead.

"If you litter, you can get a ticket. If you pollute a community on a widespread scale, you would think there'd be at least an investigation," said Smith. 

Sabrina Jonas/CBC

After a 30-minute phone call with the city, Smith was left only a name and number of the city-appointed building inspector for the construction site, Frank Labriola, who he says hasn't returned his calls. CBC Toronto also reached out to Labriola by email Wednesday and has not yet received a response. 

In a statement to CBC Toronto, the city said Toronto Building staff met with property management company The Residence at Weston and the building contractor after Smith's complaint. CBC Toronto contacted the company by email and phone Wednesday but did not receive a response. 

Toronto Building staff said the company has agreed to use netting to limit the spread of the Styrofoam debris and to continue vacuuming the area around the building.

The contractor also said they will rasp the Styrofoam slower in an effort to manage the containment more effectively, Toronto Building staff told CBC Toronto in an email Thursday. 

But that has had little effect on the damage already done, Smith said.

"We would like to know who is actually going to be cleaning this up, but a better question is, 'Is it even possible to clean up?' Because I don't know how you would go around and pick up something the size of lice," said Smith. 

The city said it's classifying Smith's complaint as an air quality complaint for "dust" in accordance with city protocol. 

But Smith disputes that classification, saying he believes Styrofoam's impact on human health and the environment is much worse than dust's.

Human impact 

Smith said he is hesitant to grow vegetables in his garden due to the carcinogenic chemicals found in Styrofoam that can seep into the soil.

Thomas Tenkate, an expert in environmental health at Ryerson University, said Smith's concern is justified. 

He said among the chemicals in Styrofoam, the chemical most detrimental to humans is styrene.

"That chemical has been associated with causing cancer, particularly leukemia and lymphoma," said Tenkate. Breathing it in has also been associated with cancer within the nose, he said. 

"Once [Styrofoam] is in the environment, it doesn't break down very easily... And so it could get into the groundwater, it gets into the soil. And then once the Styrofoam particles are in there, the styrene can leach out," he said. 

In its statement to CBC Toronto, Toronto Building said it's developing a proactive strategy to address the negative impacts of large-scale construction in the city. 

But many residents of the Weston neighbourhood remain convinced the remnants will be there for years.