Friday, February 6, 2004 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Calls increase for probe into why hospital staff got sick

By Tera Camus / Cape Breton Bureau

New Waterford - The Sierra Club of Canada added its voice Thursday to calls for a public inquiry into heavy metal contamination of workers at New Waterford Consolidated Hospital.

Spokesman Bruno Marcocchio said a provincially hired consultant was illogical last week when she said that illnesses among 11 medical staffers at the hospital are a coincidence.

"It defies common sense," Mr. Marcocchio said Thursday. "You have a cluster of employees, working in the same wing, all with metals in their bodies, and you have traces of those metals in the waste, you got (hospital officials) admitting the air handling system is a problem and there was dust during the renovation and yet she concludes it can't be the (hospital).

"There is no other common denominator."

The sick staff members don't live in the same neighbourhood and don't all smoke or eat the same kinds of foods, Mr. Marcocchio said.

"This is a coverup and we think we need a public inquiry to get to the bottom of it."

The Sierra Club and others believe the illnesses were caused by exposure to renovations at the hospital. A 16-month, $250,000 project began in a poorly ventilated area in 2001.

Dr. Lesbia Smith of Toronto told reporters last week that her findings followed her review of test results from air samples and building materials collected last year.

Trace levels of every heavy metal found in sick staff members were present in the samples taken from the ceiling tiles, air ducts, floor and other areas but Dr. Smith said the concentrations were too low to cause illness.

No samples were taken during the renovations, when dust was flying. Neither staff members nor the hospital's occupational health and safety committee complained about the dust at the time.

"If indeed some people have metal poisoning, the source of exposure is not the hospital," Dr. Smith said last week, admitting she did not take any tests herself or speak to any affected staff.

Dr. Duncan MacIntyre, a 39-year-old oral surgeon who has been off sick since 2002 after falling to his knees near where the renovations were taking place, called for a public inquiry last year after going public with his heavy metal contamination.

Several of Dr. MacIntyre's staff members are also off sick.

Dr. Ben Boucher, one of three doctors in the province who treats heavy metal poisonings, also called for an inquiry last year, but the Cape Breton district health authority has said it's still conducting tests and it's too early to consider an inquiry.

Mr. Marcocchio said it's shocking that no patients at the New Waterford hospital have been tested, considering many live there year-round as chronic-care patients.

One worker had a baby that also tested positive for heavy metals and uranium.

Victor Tomiczek, spokesman for the Canadian Auto Workers union, doesn't support an inquiry but says staff members should get a second opinion on their metal tests, something Dr. Smith also suggested last week.

The province is paying to bring in a CAW-recommended expert to treat staff members who have metal contamination.

"The province also has to acknowledge that workers are sick, which they haven't done, and they have to ensure there's compensation in place so these workers can look after their families," Mr. Tomiczek said.

Health Minister Angus MacIsaac couldn't be reached for comment.