Incineration unacceptable, says Sydney oncologist

By Tanya Collier Macdonald
Cape Breton Post
Thurs., May 11, 2006

Sydney - First, do no harm, says a Cape Breton oncologist working to control cancer on this island.

It was a pledge Dr. Ron MacCormick took when he started his career, and it served as a recommendation to members of a joint review panel in Sydney, Wednesday.

"Incineration, in my opinion, is unacceptable," said MacCormick. "It's a visible reminder of the coke ovens and blast furnace emissions and definitely does not improve air quality."

The risk that dioxins and furans could be released into Sydney's air is a risk he isn't willing to take.

"Efforts in this community are to improve things, not to maintain them."

However, he said, he weighs his comments with the absolute need for a cleanup to begin as soon as possible.

"I will not back down on incineration," said MacCormick. "But I will back down to a significant delay in the project."

MacCormick said that the cleanup needs to proceed to address this community's cumulative stress.

Although there is no scientific method currently available to tie cancer incidence to a specific cause, work has been done on relationships between air emissions and lung cancer.

A study by Health Canada scientists Pierre Band and Michel Camus in the late 1990s identified the amount of particulate matter dispersed in Sydney and surrounding areas between 1959 and 1973. Those numbers showed Whitney Pier was hit hardest by the steel plant's air emissions. The study also collected data on lung cancer mortality, which showed a significant increase in mortality rates in Whitney Pier when compared to other communities.

"Although interesting, this doesn't prove causality," said MacCormick. To be prudent, he did state that the study didn't include environmental and occupational exposures and lifestyle habits as well as other factors such as residential history.

However, MacCormick didn't stop there. He included his recent travels in describing his personal reasons for believing a cleanup could only improve health.

He told panel members that he recently visited two communities (Atlanta, Georgia, and Tacoma, Washington), which both had significant environmental issues. He said residents displayed feelings of "euphoria" when chatting about the benefits of their cleaned up sites. The Atlanta site, formerly an inner city steel mill, is now an on-site housing development. The Tacoma site, once a multiple industry dumping ground, now has a marina development, is home to a University of Washington campus and has a museum of glass.

MacCormick admitted residents may be biased but the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry conducted research that also backed his position. The agency studied the psychosocial effects of toxic dump sites in the United States, which are now collectively referred to as Superfund sites. The study started with the assumption that health is an intertwined, inseparable entity made up of biological, psychological and social factors. Researchers found that residents displayed feelings of uncertainty and a loss of control. It was also found that communities tend to split into factions, which Cape Breton may also be experiencing, said MacCormick.

The American study also identified that residents, and the community as a whole, suffered from cumulative stress.

Cumulative stress has been shown to have physiological effects - specifically, it accelerates aging.

"Chronic cumulative stress is not simply a quality of life issue but also has implications on life expectancy," added MacCormick.

MacCormick has recently completed research on links between chemotherapy and an acceleration of the aging process. He will resume his oncology work at the Cape Breton Cancer Centre in July.

Cape Breton University also presented at Wednesday's hearing. It's researchers said a well-designed, well-built, well-operated and well-maintained rotary kiln incinerator should be capable of operating within all of the applicable federal and provincial codes and guidelines. Risks from incineration are manageable, it was concluded in research undertaken by John R. Grace, Glab Reactor and Fluidization Technologies Inc, from Vancouver, BC.

Cleanup in a click
Web sites that provide information on the joint panel process and the remediation plan include:

Picture not available for caption below:
Dr. Ron MacCormick, oncologist at the Cape Breton Cancer Centre, right, made a presentation at Wednesday's panel hearing in Sydney. He rejects incineration but wants the cleanup to proceed as soon as possible. Accompanying MacCormick was Bill Bailey, Cape Breton University instructor, engineering and environmental studies.