Money for health initiatives could have funded cohort studies,
say JAG volunteers

By Tanya Collier Macdonald
Cape Breton Post
Sat., May 22, 2004

SYDNEY - Founding members of the Joint Action Group are furious that money that could have helped answer important health questions is being directed elsewhere.

Francis Sirois, a JAG volunteer, said $330,000 recently announced by government to pay for a series of healthy initiatives within the Cape Breton District Health Authority is around the same amount needed for a cohort study members have demanded for years.

The study would have delved into more than 10,000 occupational and medical files from steelworkers who worked at the Sydney steel plant and, coke ovens site.

The epidemiological effort was endorsed by the steelworks, family members and the United Steelworkers of America. The plan was to investigate exposures and link them to subsequent health impacts experienced by workers at the plant. Dr. Judy Guernsey, a researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax, was prepared to do the work in 2000 but couldn't secure funding, said Sirois. At that time, the study was expected to cost between $300,000 and $350,000 and completed over a three-year period.

In 1998, Guernsey authored a study entitled The Risk of Cancer in Sydney, Cape Breton County, Nova Scotia 1979-1995. It showed that Sydney had a 50 per cent higher cancer incidence rate than the rest of Nova Scotia. The second step was the cohort study, said Sirois.

JAG members pressured government to fund the effort but were denied the money nearly one year ago - just days before government partners declined to continue financially supporting the community-driven group.

In a letter dated May 26, 2003, and authored by David Darrow, the chair of the executive committee that controlled the $71 million cost-share agreement to fund work for the Sydney tar ponds and coke ovens sites, it was stated that government was unable to "accommodate the request."

He also wrote that if additional funding was made available for health-related initiatives, it would go toward "health outcomes of Sydney area residents in the future.

"In fact, an approach is already being made to the Cape Breton District Health Authority to determine what opportunities, if any, might exist for future collaboration on initiatives intended to produce such a result," wrote Darrow. "The health studies working group will be kept appraised of our efforts in this regard."

Sirois said JAG members were not consulted before government announced the health initiatives reported in Thursday's Cape Breton Post and paid for with money left over from the cost-share agreement.

Although JAG is no longer supported by government dollars, it continues as a non-profit registered society.

Thursday, JAG forwarded e-mails to more than 450 individuals across Canada asking help in identifying potential researchers, universities and organizations that might be interested in funding and performing the study. The e-mail stated that JAG members feel the cohort study would be a benefit, not only for the Sydney area, but also in other similar heavy industry areas across the country.