Extreme toluene levels recorded in Sydney |
By Tera Camus / Cape Breton Bureau
Sydney - The highest concentration of toluene ever recorded in North America has
been detected in Sydney's air but officials still don't think the government
test results are credible.
"We don't believe these readings are accurate - we don't believe it's coming
from any source," Walter vanVeen, a consultant with the provincial Sydney Tar
Ponds Agency, said of high levels of toluene measured every week since July.
Faulty equipment, lab error or vandalism could be to blame for the high
readings, he said, noting the cause has yet to be determined.
Recorded levels of toluene have peaked at nearly eight times the acceptable
government-set limits at the coke ovens and tar ponds cleanup site in Sydney.
It's been detected as far away as Kings Road, five kilometres from the site.
The chemical was once produced at the former Sydney Steel plant as part of the
The clear, colourless liquid is often found in paint, gasoline, glue, carpets,
photocopiers, print shops, incinerators, dry cleaning plants and smog.
Constant exposure can cause tiredness, nausea and loss of appetite while
long-term effects could include tumours, birth defects and damage to the brain
and respiratory and reproductive systems.
One Tupper Street man told this newspaper his 12-year-old son has started
"It's happening every day, you have to shut your doors and windows," he said of
"We were at the doctor's this week and they said they've been bombarded with
patients complaining of headaches."
Neither the province's nor Cape Breton's chief medical officer could be reached
Health Canada has an epidemiologist in Sydney monitoring the situation,
according to director general Don Ferguson. He doesn't believe there's an
immediate health risk.
But residents are not convinced.
"Everyone down here is talking about it . . . it's pathetic," the Tupper Street
man said. "I even had to take the clothes off the line yesterday because I
don't want that stink on them."
Mr. vanVeen said the power of suggestion in the media may be prompting some
"I think sometimes when people read things, they start smelling things," he
said, noting he's gotten calls but hasn't sniffed anything other than the
sewage that wafts off the tar ponds in downtown Sydney.
"Obviously people are concerned, but there's not a sufficient frequency."
Six permanent air monitoring stations are located throughout the city and are
turned on once a week for 24 hours.
The city's toxic waste sites were eliminated almost immediately as a possible
source of the toluene.
"It wasn't the site, because if it was on the site, we would have been seeing it
for the past three years," Mr. vanVeen said, noting sensitive hand-held
gas-detecting recorders were taken there just in case but found nothing too
Removal of toluene and other fuel-based chemicals began at the Domtar tank at
the coke ovens site in July, "about the same time" toluene readings peaked at
various air stations, said agency spokesman Parker Donham.
But he noted the exhaust system used at the Domtar tank is working properly.
That toxic sludge is being removed to be incinerated in Montreal as part of a
Officials have also ruled out as causes the refuelling of American jets over
Cape Breton skies, Nova Scotia Power generating stations, Irving oil tankers
and the regional incinerator, where biomedical waste is burned.
Officials hope to know more by Tuesday.
Normal urban concentrations of toluene have also been recorded in Sydney, Mr.
vanVeen said, noting some of the lowest readings were recorded on streets
abutting toxic waste sites.