High lead levels found near NB school

Environmental group finds Belledune soil contains
excessive amounts of arsenic
By Kevin Cox
The Globe and Mail
Friday, June 11, 2004 - Page A6

Some of the 1,900 residents of the northern New Brunswick industrial town of Belledune are tearing up gardens and fencing off parts of a school playground after an environmental group found high levels of lead and arsenic in the soil.

Lead levels at one place in the playground of Belledune Elementary School were 2,800 parts per million, 20 times the acceptable level of 140 parts per million set by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. Another part of the playground had levels of 413 parts per million. Elevated levels of arsenic were found as well in the samples, taken in May. The school is nearly six kilometres away from an iron-zinc smelter owned by Noranda Inc.

The environmental group and supporters from the Belledune are in a long-standing debate with provincial officials about the health hazards of the emissions from the smelter. The provincial Department of Health and Wellness is doing a health study, and the Department of the Environment has insisted that that any contamination is limited to an area near the smelter and that emissions from the facility have declined dramatically in recent years.

But Inka Milewski, science adviser to the council, said the sampling shows there is an urgent need to recognize that many backyards and playgrounds are contaminated and could be causing health problems.

Exposure to lead in small concentrations can cause behavioural problems, nervous conditions and slow growth in young children. "Add to that the arsenic and cadmium we also found, and you've got a pretty potent cocktail of contaminants," Ms. Milewski said.

Staff at the elementary school have fenced off the spot where the high amounts of lead were found. Ms. Milewski said the next step should be a cleanup.

Gardeners such as Theresa Cormier were alarmed by the high lead and arsenic levels in backyard vegetable patches. In one back yard about 2.5 kilometres from the smelter, the lead level was 688 parts per million, almost five times the CCME guideline. "When I saw my results, I decided that I had to take out everything -- all my strawberries, all my grapes and raspberries. I had a difficult time seeing my husband tear it apart," Ms. Cormier said yesterday.

Now she worries about the health of her adult children, who ate produce from garden for many years. Ms. Cormier questioned why no one at Noranda, where her husband worked for three decades, or in the provincial government, flagged the high lead and arsenic levels. "I really thought the government was doing its job. If testing was done at the smelter, then why did this go so far?" Ms. Cormier asked.

A spokeswoman for the provincial Department of Health and Wellness said late yesterday that she had not seen the environmental group's data and could not comment on the issue.