Dust study challenges key claims on environmental safety

Letter To The Editor - Elizabeth May
Cape Breton Post
Saturday, April 26, 2003

I appreciated the Cape Breton Post’s April 9 editorial for the strong message that adversarial politics get in the way of science in understanding the risks to health in Sydney (Dusty Shelf Beckons Study). The difficulty of having reputable scientists participate in independent work in Sydney has been seriously worsened by the personal attacks and low blows of the government’s spin doctor, Parker Donham. Readers may recall Donham rejecting out of hand last summer the importance of testing dust, claiming that if government had tested the dust Sierra Club of Canada would want to test the “dandelions and the cheeseburgers.”

Permit me to set the record straight on a few key points.

The People’s Health Commission, vhi1e receiving financial support from Sierra Club of Canada, is managed and directed by an expert team of scientists, medical doctors and researchers responding to concerns from community members. Dr. Tim Lambert of the University of Calgary is the chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the PHC, which includes Dr. Samuel Epstein, M.D., professor emeritus, University of Chicago School of Medicine; Dr. Trevor Hancock, M.D., Canadian Association or Physicians for the Environment, B.C.; Dr. Rosalie Bertell, International Institute or Concern for Public Health. New York; Dr. Barry Thomas, consultant to Health Canada, Nova Scotia; Dr. Kate Davies, professor, Antioch College, Seattle, Washington; Roger Dixon. industrial hygienist, Ontario; Dr. Donna Mergler, neurotoxicologist, University of Quebec at Montreal; Dr. Kevin Orrell M.D., Sydney. The PHC also draws advice and peer review from a larger group of colleagues.

The Scientific Advisory Group identified a significant gap in knowledge because no testing of household dust had been conducted in Sydney. Readers may recall the exchange between residents of Fort Valley, Georgia. and Sydney in 1998. It was studies of household dust that led to relocation and remediation in Fort Valley. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency routinely tests for dust when investigating contaminated sites.

The results of such a study were unknown until the testing was conducted. The PHC committed to releasing the data regardless of what it demonstrated.. Testing of the dust was conducted in a Cape Breton laboratory. The results were shared confidentially with residents, and then at a public meeting. Subsequently, Dr. Lambert shared these results with public health authorities.

Nearly every home had levels of arsenic and lead in dust that could represent a risk to health. But the PHC has not taken a position that the dust taken alone is the sole route of exposure. One must consider the outside soil, the inside dust, and the airborne contaminants as well.

By testing the dust on the exterior of a house, Dr. Lambert has also verified another route of exposure in outdoor air.

The basis of the assurance from both the federal and provincial departments of health that the severe level of cancer and other health problems in the Sydney area is not related to environmental contaminants is the health risk assessment conducted over the summer of 2001. Much of the data in that study was based on computer projections estimating exposure levels, instead or actually measuring them. The results of the dust study should cause a review of the health risk assessment to see if its hypotheses hold in the face of additional facts.

The results are not “pointless.” Thanks to the dust study, we now know far more. Key findings include:

  • The three neighbourhoods of Whitney Pier, Ashby and the north end are not different from each other, or from the so called NOCO (North of Coke Ovens) area. All are contaminated.

  • The outdoor soil contamination does not stay outside. It is migrating into the homes.

  • There is no excuse for claiming that Sydney has “naturally” higher background levels of lead and arsenic. Dr. Lambert’s sampling under a house 100 years old demonstrates that soil levels prior to the steel mill operation were low and did not pose a health risk.

  • The soil studies gathered by the government (recently released to the PHC in preparation for a meeting of its experts with Health Canada consultants) confirm Dr. Lambert’s findings.. The soils in Cape Breton are not naturally higher in arsenic and lead as claimed by government bureaucrats. The choice of North Sydney as a “control” area in the health risk assessment must be justified because it appears to be a way of minimizing the risk of living in Sydney

Paul Moore of Health Canada has now confirmed Dr. Lambert’s dust-related findings by releasing information that outside soil in all three neighbourhoods is contaminated above guidelines of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. Health Canada has apparently had this information since April 2001, and yet it continued to deny that the neighbourhoods beyond NOCO were seriously contaminated.

One of the arguments for discounting high arsenic in some 15 of the children sampled in the summer of 2001 was that children in so-called uncontaminated neighbourhoods also had high levels of arsenic. At the time, the government was aware that this was not true. Why has the government failed to take preventive measures since 2001?

Relocation of residents where there is free product in their basements and sumps is reasonable and cost-effective. The 50 worst homes in Whitney Pier, the north end, and Ashby could be relocated for between $2.5 million and $5 million. This is a fraction of remediation costs. The use of the historic site boundaries in designing remediation is a mistake because the contaminants do not respect such boundaries. The dust study did not evaluate this question, and suggesting it did is a serious misreading of the study.

These are just some of the preliminary conclusions. Readers who wish to read the whole study are invited to find it on the Sierra Club of Canada Web site (www. sierraclub.ca/national) or on the local site (www.safecleanup.com).

Our concern as the community enters into a long overdue cleanup phase is that health not be compromised. Nearly every proposed option in the JAG workbook notes that it will increase dust, odour and particulates to the adjacent neighbourhoods. In other words, the homes closest to the areas of contamination in Whitney Pier, Ashby and the north end will experience more contamination during cleanup. These homes ae already seriously contaminated. Protecting health in the cleanup was one of the values that was supposed to be paramount.

As executive director of Sierra Club of Canada and as someone with a strong personal commitment to the health of people in Sydney and to the cleanup of the country’s largest toxic waste site, I can assure you of several things..

The adversarial approach is in no one’s interests. We are seeking opportunities to meet government experts and to exchange information. We want a cleanup to take place, and without any undue delay The cleanup must, however, protect the health of residents.

It is in the interests of all concerned that the cleanup be cost-effective and protective of health, and that it use advanced technologies. Incineration and burial fail to meet these tests.

It is our hope that a full panel review under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act will give everyone in the community access to adequate information, without delaying the process. Had our call for a panel been heeded when Sierra Club first identified the need for one, it would have been completed by now

In the meantime, we are calling on officials from both levels of government to reopen the question of the risks of living with extremely high levels of contaminants throughout the three neighbourhoods. Some people should be given the choice to be moved; others should have their homes and yards remediated.

These steps are routine elsewhere in the world. Why must people with arsenic in their basements and PAHs lingering in their yards, and with their household dust confirming that the hazardous materials migrate into the home wait for action?

Elizabeth E. May is executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada.