Friday, September 19, 2003 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

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 coke-making process.

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 getting headaches.

"It's happening every day, you have to shut your doors and windows," he said of the stink.

"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 Thursday.

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 ailments.

"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 extreme.

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 $3-million cleanup.

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.