Tampering possible cause of toxic readings in Nova Scotia city: officials

Sept. 13, 2003

Canadian Press

SYDNEY, N.S. (CP) - Unusually high readings of a dangerous chemical have been appearing and disappearing like a phantom in the air above Sydney, N.S., leading officials to wonder if mischief is to blame for the wonky results.

The mysterious occurrences were first noticed during routine testing on July 2 at one of six air monitoring stations around the Cape Breton city. The high levels of toluene dissipated, only to reappear four more times later in the month and in August at different sites.

"The readings are very odd, they're even suspicious," Parker Donham, spokesman for the provincial Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, said in an interview Friday. "We think they're probably not real." "They're popping up in different locations on different days when you'll have one monitoring station reporting a reading and others not."

Officials say they're sure the source of the toluene isn't the city's notorious tar ponds, even though the chemical was once produced at the former Sydney Steel plant as part of the coke-making process. "If there really is toluene in the air it isn't coming from (the ponds) because the wind direction when these readings have occurred has been from a direction away from the site," Donham said.

Toluene is a clear and colourless liquid that occurs naturally in crude oil and in the tropical tolu tree. It's used in solvents and has a distinctive smell that's commonly associated with plastic glue.

Breathing toluene in at low levels can cause tiredness, nausea and loss of appetite, but symptoms usually disappear when exposure is stopped. At higher levels, it can cause unconsciousness, affect kidneys and even result in death.

Along with possible tampering, the agency is investigating whether the elevated readings stem from botched testing or contaminated air canisters.

They've also talked with nearby companies to see if they've recently used toluene, but haven't turned up an leads. "We're not ruling out the possibility that they (the test results ) are real and we're investigating all the possible sources of this, but we've come up empty," Donham said.

Residents haven't expressed any concerns about the chemical, said Barry McCallum, spokesman for the local Joint Action Group.

Meanwhile, no proof of tampering has been found, and the police had yet to be called in. The air monitoring stations are surrounded by two-metre-high barbed wire fences.

Donham wouldn't speculate on why someone would meddle with the testing equipment.

Residents living near the site have long pushed for government help in relocating them and have blamed the ponds for a host of illnesses, including high cancer rates.

The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency has been testing the city's air quality for the past five years as part of its job keeping track of Nova Scotia's involvement in the massive and costly plan to clean up the tar ponds and coke ovens site.

The federal government has described the site as Canada's worst environmental mess. The ponds contain 700,000 tonnes of toxic sludge, leftovers from a century of steelmaking.

Robert Singer, chairman of Saint Mary University's chemistry department in Halifax, said it's too soon for officials to declare the chemical isn't coming from the ponds. "I would like to see data that says they can rule it out," he said.

The highest level of toluene recorded so far in Sydney was 6,000 micrograms per cubic metre along King's Road on Aug. 19. That station is the farthest away from the tar ponds site.

The acceptable level of toluene while cleanup work is being done at the site is 760 micrograms per cubic metre. In Ontario, the standard is 2,000.