Sydney death rate far above average

Despite findings, scientists hesitate to blame tar ponds

By Murray Brewster (Canadian Press)
Halifax Daily News
Thursday, Sept. 24, 1998

SYDNEY - People living in industrial Cape Breton since the 1950s have a greater chance of dying from cancer and other diseases than other Canadians, but scientists are reluctant to point the finger at the polluted landscape.

A Health Canada study released last night revealed the mortality rate in Cape Breton County was 16-per-cent higher than the national average between 1951-1994.

"Not a single cause can explain all of this," said Michel Camus, a federal researcher who spoke to a community committee examining ways to clean up the Sydney tar ponds, considered the country's worst toxic mess.

Researchers waded through mountains of death certificates over two years and identified roughly 120 different causes death.

They found rates of leukemia, breast, cervical, pancreas, stomach, and lung cancer deaths are higher than the national average.

Among those cancers at or near par with the rest of nation are larynx, kidney, bone, ovary, liver, brain, and testis.

The researchers found causes of death that also exceeded national rates were heart and respiratory diseases, stroke, and diabetes.

Despite their findings, the researchers took issue with Sydney's label as the cancer capital of Canada.

Dr. Pierre Band, who led the research team, said it's not a fair characterization because a strict city-to-city comparison has never been made. However, he did say there is cause for concern. "My view is that there's a health problem in Cape Breton County that includes cancer and non-cancer causes," he said. "That should be addressed by public-health officials."

Since the 1980s, the rate of heart, stroke, diabetes, and other illness deaths has leveled off, but the scientists suggested cancer is killing an increasing number of people.

The report called for detailed research, including a study on the health of former coke-oven and steel workers from the Sydney Steel mill. Some didn't believe the report was thorough enough.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offered to help the team implement a slightly different approach to collecting data, but was turned down, said environmentalist Bruno Marccochio. His colourful outbursts often interrupted the meeting and led some committee members to pound on the tables, demanding he leave.

Relying on death certificates alone for the data painted a misleading picture, said Marccochio, who believes a door-to-door health survey needs to be done. "It only makes sense if you look at it very cynically and decide that the federal government did not want to document what's going on here," he said.

Residents of one street near the abandoned coke-ovens site have been hounding the province since spring to relocate them. Many say they're sick and blame it on yellow, toxic goo that is seeping into their backyards. While soil and water samples showed unusually high levels of arsenic and other contaminants, authorities said a few weeks ago there was no immediate health risk.

The study's findings give residents new ammunition. "I've lost a lot of faith in the government," said Juanita MacKenzie, who spoke for her Frederick Street neighbours. "I can't understand why we are where we are today."

The report's release came just days after Ottawa and the Nova Scotia government signed an agreement to cover costs of cleaning up the coke ovens and tar ponds sites of the Muggah Creek Watershed in downtown Sydney. The cost of the project wasn't given but it is expected to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. About 700,000 tonnes of goo contaminated by polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, sits in the tar ponds - the byproduct of 100 years of steelmaking.

An earlier effort to burn the sludge failed miserably. More than $50 million was spent to build two incinerators, but the project stalled when a pipeline designed to carry the sludge to the burners kept plugging.