The first thing you notice about Sarnia, Ontario, is the smell: a potent mix of gasoline, melting asphalt, and the occasional trace of rotten egg. Shortly after my arrival I already felt unpleasantly high and dizzy, like I wasn’t getting enough air. Maybe this had something to do with the bouquet of smokestacks in the southern part of town that, all day every day, belch fumes and orange flares like something out of a Blade Runner-esque dystopia.
Sarnia is home to more than 60 refineries and chemical plants that produce gasoline, synthetic rubbers, and other materials that the world’s industries require to create the commercial products we know and love. The city’s most prominent and profitable attraction is an area about the size of 100 city blocks known as the Chemical Valley, where 40 percent of Canada’s chemical industry can be found packed together like a noxious megalopolis. According to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization, Sarnia’s air is the most polluted air in Canada. There are more toxic air pollutants billowing out of smokestacks here than in all of the provinces of New Brunswick or Manitoba.