Test Flin Flon citizens for toxins: MD

Critics say ongoing risk assessment not enough to detect possible harm

By Jen Skerritt
Winnipeg Free Press
Mon., Oct. 29, 2007

ALL residents of Flin Flon should be tested to see if they have been exposed to high levels of lead, mercury and arsenic, health officials tell the Free Press.

Dr. Kapil Khatter, a physician with Toronto-based Environmental Defence, a non-profit group that studies the link between the environment and human health, said a simple blood test could confirm whether a person's health has been adversely affected by lead, and other tests can be done to see whether harmful levels of mercury or arsenic are in the body.

Khatter said emerging research has shown that even low levels of lead contribute to higher incidences of hyperactivity, lower IQ and higher rates of anemia among children.

"I think all the children, in particular, should be tested in Flin Flon," Khatter said during a phone interview from Toronto. "There's an assumption the problem isn't that large here. We frankly think there hasn't been enough done to get a sense of how many kids have high lead levels."

Recently, a provincial soil survey in Flin Flon found that much of the town's soil was above the standard guidelines for human health and high levels of mercury, lead and arsenic were recorded at schools and playgrounds. The survey concluded that further study was needed to determine whether toxic metals from a nearby smelter have any adverse affect on human health in Flin Flon.

In response, HudBay Minerals Inc. hired Intrinsik Environmental Sciences Inc., formerly Cantox Inc., to do a human health-risk assessment -- a year-long project they say will determine how many chemicals an average Flin Flon resident is exposed to and whether that poses any health risk.

Intrinsik executive vice-president Elliot Sigal said consultants are taking an additional 200 samples of soil along with 40 samples of dust from local homes. All data about chemicals in the air, soil, water, dust and homes will be entered into a computer that will determine whether residents' health is in danger.

Sigal said they are not testing residents to see whether they've been exposed since it's overly "intrusive." However, he said, the company may test residents later if the health-risk assessment finds certain people may be suffering from the impact of toxins.

A technical committee made up of provincial and federal representatives will decide whether the study's results need to be peer-reviewed. "To be honest, looking at the levels, they do exceed (standard) criteria, but based on experience and levels in other jurisdictions, we're not immediately concerned," Sigal said.

But critics like Elizabeth May, leader of the federal Green party, said health-risk assessments are nothing more than a tool used by governments and polluters to downplay the potential hazards of toxic metals and chemicals. May, who is currently under a threat of lawsuit for her previous comments about the integrity of Cantox's track record, said health-risk assessments are purely hypothetical and aren't an actual study of whether or not the population is sick. She said most health-risk assessments conclude that precautions, like handwashing, can be taken to lessen the impact of toxic chemicals instead of actually cleaning up the problem. Plus, she said, polluters pay for consultants to do health assessments on their own dime -- creating an obvious bias toward the results. "If you saw a big boy beating up on a little boy in the playground, your first reaction is (to say), 'stop that,"' May said. "A health-risk assessment approach would be to study how many blows the big boy could deliver to the small boy before he actually sustained any damage. "If it's not really going to hurt him, they would let it go on."

May said most politicians, the media and the public are unaware that these assessments are based on computer modelling, and ignore disease rates and other indicators. She pointed to a section of Sydney, N.S., that has the highest studied cancer rate in the country, where a human health-risk assessment determined tar ponds didn't pose a problem.

A portion of the area was later excavated in order to clean up high levels of toxic arsenic. "They're overused, they're not adequately peer-reviewed, and they create the impression to the public and the media that there's been a health study that's shown some information," May said, noting hiring university researchers or a non-profit environmental group to do the study is a better idea.

Alan Hair, HudBay's vice-president of metallurgy, safety and health, said human health-risk assessments are a well-established way of examining the chemical levels in a specific community. Hair said a technical committee of government representatives is overseeing the study along with community members to ensure the results are credible and realistic, and that testing the population of Flin Flon will be done later, if needed.

Hair said a similar study done in Sudbury included a urine study of some residents after consultants were concerned about the high level of chemicals in the area. "The processes are well-established and we're following them," Hair said.


Conflict of interest?

Conflict of interest?

Intrinsik Environmental Sciences, the consulting company hired by HudBay to determine if Flin Flon residents' health is in danger from chemical levels, is a member of the Mining Association of Canada -- an interest group that lobbies for the growth and development of the country's mining industry.

Intrinsik's executive vice-president, Elliot Sigal, denied this is a conflict of interest or that the company is actively involved in the lobby group, even though Intrinsik's website states they are an "active" member that attends meetings. "We don't do any lobbying on their behalf," Sigal said. "I don't know what the technical term for our role is, as an observer, we're not an active member."

Both Sigal and HudBay denied this relationship will affect the outcome of the health assessment, noting many environmental consulting firms are members of the mining association.

Peter R. Jones, the president and CEO of HudBay, is also the current chairman of the board of the mining association. "I don't see the connection," said Alan Hair, vice-president of metallurgy, safety and health for HudBay. "I doubt whether there's an engineering firm in Canada that's not a member of the mining association."