Toluene source identified

Cannisters to blame for high readings

By Tanya Collier MacDonald
Cape Breton Post
Sat., Sept. 20, 2003

Officials believe faulty canisters are to blame for high readings of toluene occurring in Sydney air monitoring tests. Although a definite cause has yet to be confirmed, new canisters used at six air monitoring stations throughout Sydney showed normal toluene readings while old ones continued to produce false readings.

"We're going to have more information about this when we finish the second round of testing," said Parker Donham, spokesperson for the provincial Sydney Tar Ponds Agency. It's expected those results will be ready next week.

He said tests completed last week were designed to determine if high readings of toluene, occurring since July at nearly eight times the acceptable level, were real or false. The tests showed "that there was something screwy going on," said Donham. "Now we're going to do it again just to double-check."

The volatile organic compound is defined as a colourless flammable liquid obtained from coal tar or petroleum and used in aviation fuel and other high-octane fuels, in dyestuffs, explosives and as a solvent for gums and lacquers. It's also known as methylbenzene. At extremely high levels, the substance can cause tumours in humans and is linked to cardiac dysrhythmia.

Since the dangerous chemical was detected in the air tests, a series of steps have taken place to keep the public informed as well as determining the source of the elevated readings, said Donham. "We got these strange test results, we flagged them immediately, we notified the medical officer of health, we notified the department of Environment and Labour, we notified the JAG roundtable at the first opportunity, we then set about a very aggressive program to figure out what was going on," said Donham. "And we now have what we think is clear evidence of what's going on and we revealed that as promptly as well."

Donham was critical of how the situation was depicted by media. "I think this whole saga is a very interesting object lesson for people in Sydney who watch this project." He said some people assumed the "sky was falling" from the moment the readings were reported. "We were being cautious and prudent," he said. "I hope people take note of that. The cleanup is serious enough and big enough without wildly exaggerating every aspect of it."

Donham admitted the source of the elevated levels was reported by government as a mystery and that more information was needed before it could be proven that toluene wasn't lurking above Sydney. "We couldn't rule it out on the basis of the information we had so we immediately sought new information," said Donham.