One life cut short in a toxic hot spot

Kelly Toughill - Atlantic Canada Bureau
Toronto Star
June 21, 2003

SYDNEY, N.S. — There is no doubt that poison killed young James Mayers. No doubt at all.

It was poison that turned the shy, funny young man yellow from tip to toe, poison that bulged out his eyes and turned his legs to rubber, that made him yelp in pain, ate his brain and left him hallucinating, peeling imaginary potatoes in the hospital in the final days before he died.

Everyone agrees about that.

The question is, which poison? Was it the poison he gave himself, the cheap rum he drank night after night with his grandpa at the kitchen table of the rickety old blue house where Mayers lived all his life? Or was it the poisons found in the soil of his grandpa’s bountiful vegetable garden, in the orange goo oozing through his basement, in the splendid puddles of the swampy stream where young James loved to chase pollywogs as a child? It’s a big question but a common one, here, where people die too soon, too often, of too many rare diseases.

Sydney has some of the most startling disease rates in the country. Studies have found Sydney residents die 10 years younger than the Canadian average, the cancer rate is 16 per cent higher than average and the rate of miscarriages and birth defects is far above normal. Sydney also has some of the most spectacular pollution in the country, the legacy of a steel mill and coal processing plant that spewed orange smoke over the town for almost a century before they shut down. Jeff Scott, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer, scoffs at the idea there is any connection between the sickness and the pollution, but others have drawn some connections. It is not an academic question. It is the kind of question that haunts Margaret Ross, Mayers’ mother and Kenneth Mayers, his grandfather. James Mayers died in the wee hours of Palm Sunday less than three weeks after his 27th birthday. Mayers died on April 13 of cirrhosis, an old man’s disease. It might be easy for his family to accept the official diagnosis that Mayers drank himself to death, except for a few nagging details. There is the fact that the soil where he played as a child was saturated with arsenic, a toxic metal known to cause cirrhosis after chronic exposure. There is the fact that his grandfather’s wife, a woman who was not related to Mayers by blood, died of liver cancer — which is also associated with arsenic exposure — after living in the same house for 40 years. There is the fact that coal dust used to blow through the house every day. And then there is that thing about his hair.

Mayers was born on March 27, 1976, the second son of James Mayers Sr. and Margaret Ross. The couple lived on Frederick St. with the patriarch of the clan, Kenneth Mayers, in the working-class neighbourhood of Whitney Pier, barely a stone’s throw from a big plant that processed coal for a steel factory down the road. Both father and grandfather worked in the plant, like most everyone who had a job in Sydney in those days. An uncle worked on the "shaker," a huge machine that shook railroad cars day and night to get the last little bit of coal for the processing plant. Its rumble was deafening, but its dust was worse. The sagging blue house across the street from the shaker was covered in coal dust most of the time. The windowsills were black, the furniture dark, no matter how much they were scrubbed. "Some people polish with Pledge. Well, I used a bucket of soap and water, and still, everything was black," Ross recalls.

Coal is a natural thing, a soft black rock found deep in the earth that can be used as a fuel or turned into valuable chemicals. Even in its natural state, it can be nasty, is made up partly of arsenic, thallium and other toxic metals. At the plant across the road from the family home, the coal was heated in coke ovens and split into parts, turned into chemicals with long scientific names, valuable industrial uses and ugly smells.

Those were the smells of Mayers’ childhood on Frederick St., a closely knit community of clapboard homes and ethnically diverse families where kids liked to play in the swamp and the dirt beside the railroad tracks that separated their homes from the coke ovens. Mayers’ parents split up when he was 10. His mother took her older son to live in another home a few blocks away. Mayers wanted to stay with his dad and his grandfather, so he did. It was around that time that he started to lose his hair. First it came out in clumps at the back, by the base of his neck, then all over, eyebrows, arms, the knuckles of his toes. By the time he hit adolescence, he was as shiny as an apple, without a single hair on his body anywhere. Doctors told him it was nerves.

As a child, Mayers had luxurious curly brown locks. He loved to swim in the lake, hang out with his cousins, ride his bike down the dirt paths snaking through Whitney Pier. When his hair fell out, Mayers started coming home right after school. He dropped out in Grade 10 because he couldn’t take the humiliation any more. "Kids can be cruel, you know. He was embarrassed," says his mother. This is what people remember best about Mayers: his happiness. "He was a good kid," Ross says. "He was always asking if he could help out, like when I was doing the dishes, or anything."

After quitting school, he spent most of his time caring for his elderly grandfather, after his own father dropped dead of a heart attack in the family home. Mayers took over the shopping and cooking, cleaning the house and keeping track of the bills. He loved to cook — and to eat. He was a young man who always had a song on his lips. "I can see him now, making up chicken and rice, humming along," says his aunt, Anne Ross. "He was always singing, always humming something." His world was small. It revolved around the old house up on Frederick St. Sometimes he picked blueberries on the hill behind. Sometimes he went deer hunting, or fishing, with his brother, but mostly he stayed home, taking care of his grandfather — and drinking with him.

Five years ago, when officials first discovered arsenic in the soil of homes on Frederick St., neither Mayers nor his grandfather paid much attention. The people who had complained weren’t from the Pier. They were newcomers. The folks who had been there for generations weren’t worried. After all, they had lived through much worse, when the orange smoke was so bad it would pit the paint of a new car. When a few people moved off Frederick St. in 1999, after discovering arsenic in their yards and basements, Kenneth and James didn’t even think about abandoning the family home. That first flurry of concern sparked years of testing. It turned out that the Mayers home was almost directly across the street from the worst spot, a patch of land where arsenic levels were 856 milligrams per kilogram — more than 100 times higher than U.S. guidelines for residential soil. It was the same spot where Mayers spent many afternoons playing as a child.

Arsenic is a potent poison with a rash of nasty medical consequences. The most common are skin problems, lesions and warts that turn into cancer. But it also targets other parts of the body, including the liver. Several studies show that chronic exposure to arsenic can cause cirrhosis. Chronic exposure is also linked to liver cancer. The lot across the street wasn’t the only place Mayers could have been exposed to arsenic. Tests found levels of arsenic between 24 and 37 milligrams per kilogram in his own yard, the same yard where he helped his grandfather plant radishes, carrots and turnips each spring that they ate later in the summer.

Selene Chou is a toxicologist who literally helped write the book on arsenic. She is one of the authors of the definitive profile of the chemical published by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. She says it is impossible to tell what role, if any, arsenic played in the life and death of James Mayers. He didn’t have the telltale skin lesions of arsenic poisoning, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t suffer from it.

Canadian guidelines suggest residential soil have no more than 12 milligrams of arsenic per kilogram. United States guidelines are even stricter, suggesting the dirt surrounding private homes have no more than 8 milligrams per kilogram of arsenic. But those guidelines are rarely met in places — like Nova Scotia — where arsenic is naturally found, Chou says. In many parts of the United States, residential soil has 20 to 40 milligrams per kilogram. The arsenic in the house’s yard wasn’t all that high, she says, but Mayers may have been exposed to far more of it than normal because of the vegetable garden and because of the spot across the street.

It’s unclear exactly why there is so much arsenic in that one spot. It may have been an ash pile where local residents dumped the toxic remains of the wood and coal fires used to heat their homes, or perhaps the arsenic migrated from the nearby plant. What is clear is that one of the most toxic spots in this toxic city was also one of young James’ favourite playgrounds, a patch of dirt next to the swampy stream that drew little boys in summer like flies to a dung heap. "It’s possible his exposure, through playing in dirt, putting his hand in his mouth and swallowing dirt, played a role," Chou says. "It’s possible he was exposed through the garden. I would not be surprised."

Nova Scotia health officials tested the children of Whitney Pier for lead and arsenic poisoning three years ago. Officials and environmentalists disagree about what the results revealed. Two things are clear. A few children did have high arsenic levels, but the average was very low. Arsenic is not the only toxic material found in Whitney Pier. There are many. Another was thallium, a heavy metal that was used in rat poisons until scientists realized it was far too dangerous to be spread so casually around the world.

There is a lot of research about how high doses of thallium kill people. Less is known about the effects of low doses. The single most common symptom of chronic thallium poisoning is hair loss over the entire body — alopecia universalis. Researchers did not find high levels of thallium in the soil of the Mayers’ home, but they did find thallium levels above Canadian guidelines in almost every soil sample taken nearby. One of the interesting and key facets of thallium-induced hair loss is that when the person is no longer exposed to the thallium, their hair grows back.

Mayers and his grandfather finally left their home on Frederick St. late last year and moved to a new home many blocks away. A short while after the move, Mayers’ hair started to grow for the first time in 16 years. Alopecia is one of those mystery diseases that can appear and vanish with no known cause. It can be sparked by genetic factors, autoimmune disease, stress or poisons. Alfred Dorsey wrote the manual on thallium poisoning for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. He says Mayers’ symptoms are consistent with chronic thallium poisoning, that with a constant low dose, he would lose his hair without showing any other symptoms. "It’s possible," he says. "Children react differently and tend to be more sensitive than adults are. Once the body is affected, it keeps the symptoms until the dose is removed."

No one in his family can remember, or perhaps wants to talk about, exactly how much Mayers drank in his short life. His mother, his aunt and his grandfather all agree that he liked rum. His mother says she never saw him drunk. "I never saw him stumble, you know. He never slurred," she says. "But I don’t know how much, or how often, he drank. Maybe four times a week? Maybe three? I just don’t know."

Ross says she asked doctors at hospitals in Sydney and in Halifax to test her son for the presence of other toxic chemicals that might have caused his cirrhosis. "I asked them to take blood and stuff — whatever they need — to see if there was any toxic dirt in him," she says. "The specialist said he would, but he never got back to me." Mayers’ doctors did not return telephone calls from the Star.

Dr. Gerry Minuk is a liver specialist in Winnipeg and one of Canada’s top experts on cirrhosis and its causes. He says the chances of environmental toxins causing Mayers’ liver disease are very, very small. The fact that a second person living in the same house also died of liver disease is no more than a curiosity, he says. "Life is full of these types of surprises and odd occurrences," he says. "It is unlikely that it is connected. It’s more likely just a quirk of fate." Minuk says it only takes three drinks a day for 10 years to kill someone. If Mayers began to drink at age 17 and kept it up every day, his death fits the statistical norms.

Parker Barss Donham is the spokesperson for the Nova Scotia’s Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, part of a government consortium trying to clean up the pollution in the centre of town. He refused to comment on Mayers’ death directly, other than to offer sympathy for the family. He also criticized those who have tried to draw direct links between Sydney’s pollution problems and its health problems. "There are those people who want us to perpetually linger in the past," Donham says. "It’s really important that we go forward and that we tackle the real factors behind Sydney’s real problems. And the real factors are poverty, income disparity and the tiny cadre of people who are constantly beating the drum to scare people."

Dorsey, the U.S. thallium expert, offers another theory about what may — or may not — have killed James Mayers. He points out that Mayers lived in a neighbourhood polluted not just with arsenic and thallium, but also iron and copper, which can also cause liver disease, molybdenum, benzene, toluene, naphthalene and a number of other poisons. "It is rarely just one chemical," he says. "When they discovered uranium miners had lung cancer, the miners were all smokers as well. It wasn’t just uranium, there was another factor. It is rarely just one chemical that makes people sick.".