Category Archives: Health and Environment

4 years after BP oil spill, health impacts linger

4 years after BP oil spill, health impacts linger

4 years after BP oil spill, health impacts linger
Health concerns continue to do many who worked to clean up the BP oil spill (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

By Stacey Plaisance And Kevin McGill, The Associated Press

CHALMETTE, La. – When a BP oil well began gushing crude into the Gulf of Mexico four years ago, fisherman George Barisich used his boat to help clean up the millions of gallons of spew that would become the worst offshore spill in U.S. history.

Like so many Gulf Coast residents who pitched in after the April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, Barisich was motivated by a desire to help and a need to make money — the oil had eviscerated his livelihood.

Today he regrets that decision, and worries his life has been permanently altered. Barisich, 58, says respiratory problems he developed during the cleanup turned into pneumonia and that his health has never been the same:

[quote]After that, I found out that I couldn’t run. I couldn’t exert past a walk.[/quote]

His doctor declined comment.

Medical settlement reached with BP

Barisich is among thousands considering claims under a medical settlement BP reached with cleanup workers and coastal residents. The settlement, which could benefit an estimated 200,000 people, received final approval in February from a federal court. It establishes set amounts of money — up to $60,700 in some cases — to cover costs of various ailments for those who can document that they worked the spill and developed related illnesses, such as respiratory problems and skin conditions.

It also provides for regular physical examinations every three years for up to 21 years, and it reserves a worker’s right to sue BP over conditions that develop down the road, if the worker believes he or she can prove a connection to the spill.

Clean-up workers participate in massive, long-term health study

Some 33,000 people, including Barisich, are participating in a massive federal study that aims to determine any short or possible long-term health effects related to the spill.

“We know from … research that’s been done on other oil spills, that people one to two years after … had respiratory symptoms and changes in their lung function, and then after a couple of years people start to return to normal,” said Dr. Dale Sandler, who heads the study overseen by the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, an arm of the National Institutes of Health.

[quote]What nobody’s ever done is ask the question: Well, after five years or 10 years are people more likely to develop heart disease, or are they more likely to get cancer? And I’m sure that’s what people who experienced this oil spill are worried about.[/quote]

Sandler planned to discuss some early findings Friday during a midday news conference.

The study is funded by NIH, which received a $10 million award from London-based BP, part of $500 million the oil giant has committed to spend over 10 years for environmental and health research.

Researchers compiled a list of 100,000 candidates, drawn from sources including rosters of mandatory safety classes that cleanup crews attended and from records of people who were issued badges permitting access to oiled areas.

They reached about 33,000 for interviews; and 11,000 of them agreed to physical examinations that include blood and blood pressure tests and measurements of lung function. Water and air samples taken during the spill also will be used to attempt to pinpoint how much exposure workers may have had to toxic substances.

Proving correlation is a challenge

Sandler emphasized that making any direct correlation between health concerns and the spill could prove challenging because many of the workers held other jobs that put them in contact with oil. Some worked with boat engines, did regular hazard mediation work or worked at chemical plants. Many also are smokers.

The researchers will try to account for smoking or other factors that could ruin health, and narrow in on problems tied to spill exposure. They plan to monitor the health of study participants for at least 10 to 15 years.

Aside from physical health, Sandler also is interested in knowing whether chemical exposure, in addition to the stress of working the spill, might have contributed to any mental health problems.

“We’re not in a position to say that yet,” she said.

Money will never replace quality of life

Fisherman and former cleanup worker Bert Ducote says he knows the physical and emotional pain. Ducote said dozens of boils have turned up on his neck, back and stomach since the spill — and he theorizes, though shared no medical records that could prove, that his problems stem from the cleanup.

Ducote said he spent months handling the boom used to corral oil. Even with protective gear and rubber boots, he said his shirt often got wet with the combination of crude oil, sea water and chemical dispersant. Ducote, like Barisich, said he is filing a claim under the medical settlement.

“That has been a disaster in our lives,” said Ducote, from the town of Meraux, in coastal St. Bernard Parish.

[quote]The little amount of money they’re trying to give us, it’s never going to replace our quality of life, our health.[/quote]

BP claims settlement was fair

In response, BP points to language in U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier’s order approving the medical settlement. Barbier noted that both sides said the settlement was a fair and reasonable alternative to litigation, and that fewer than 100 of 200,000 potential class members objected.

BP also lists numerous steps it took after the disaster to protect workers’ health, including protective clothing and safety classes.

Cleanup workers who faced possible contact with oil and dispersants were “provided safety training and appropriate personal protective equipment, and were monitored by federal agencies and BP to measure potential exposure levels and help ensure compliance with established safety procedures,” BP said in an email to The Associated Press.

Many clean-up workers lacked protective gear

Not all used that equipment, however. Dr. Edward Trapido, a cancer specialist and the lead researcher on a study of cleanup crews and their families that is underway at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, said many worked without the protective clothing because of sweltering heat.

Trapido said results of the long-term health studies could help improve response to future oil spills and other disasters.

“Oil is not going away, and whatever kind of energy it is — whether it’s nuclear, whether it’s coal or oil — all of these have had problems in recent years where people get exposed to it,” Trapido said.

Beijing air pollution soars to alarming levels

Beijing air pollution soars to alarming levels


Beijing air pollution soars to alarming levels

by Didi Tang, Associated Press

BEIJING – When the air gets really bad, Beijing says it has an emergency plan to yank half the city’s cars off the road. The only problem is: It may be difficult to ever set that plan in motion.

It wasn’t triggered in January, when the city recorded extremely poisonous air pollution. And not this week, when pollution was expected to continue for several days at hazardous levels. A rare alert issued Friday was an “orange” one — the second-highest in the four levels of urgency — prompting health advisories and bans on barbeques, fireworks and demolition work, but no order to pull cars from the streets.

“Yesterday, I thought it was bad enough when I went out to eat. But this morning I was hacking,” a Beijing pedestrian who gave her name as Li said Friday, as a thick haze shrouded the city.

Still, the government did not issue the red alert. Beijing’s alert system requires a forecast of three days in a row of severe pollution for the highest level. Days of extreme pollution or polluted skies that are expected to clear in less than three days do not trigger the most stringent measures.

A period of pollution in January that saw density readings of PM 2.5 particles exceeding 500 micrograms per cubic meter prompted only the mildest, blue-level alert. That density is about 20 times as high as the 25 micrograms considered safe by the World Health Organization. PM refers to “particulate matter,” a mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets, the size of which is linked to their potential for causing health problems.

The measures that went into effect Friday also ask members of the public to use public transportation and to turn off their cars rather than let them run idle, as well as call for water sprinkling on the street and dust-control measures at building sites. The most stringent level, red, would order half of Beijing’s 5 million cars off the road — based on the last digit of their license plate.

Ma Jun, of the non-governmental Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, said that accurately forecasting three days of heavy pollution is technically difficult.

But in any case, he said, the government is reluctant to adopt the most disruptive measures, because it would be nearly impossible to notify all drivers of the rules and to adequately boost the capacity of public transportation to accommodate the extra passengers.

“When the alert is at a low level, the measures are not effective, but those for the high-level alert are not feasible,” Ma said. “The government is reluctant to raise the alert level.”

However, Ma credited the government with becoming more open in recent months about air pollution levels, and noted that many people receive real-time government updates about Beijing’s air quality on their mobile phones, so that they can take protective measures.

Associated Press video journalists Aritz Parra and Hélène Franchineau contributed to this report.


Fracking tied to birth defects: Colorado study

Congenital heart defects are the leading cause of all infant deaths in the US

A new study, published last week in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectivesdraws a correlation between birth defects and maternal exposures to natural gas.

After examining 124,842 births between 1996 and 2009 in rural Colorado, the study found a higher incidence of congenital heart defects (CHDs) and neural tube defects (NTDs) with infants whose mothers experienced higher exposures to natural gas.

The study (download pdf here) was led by researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health and Brown University, with support from The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). Born out of health concerns surrounding the growth of natural gas development throughout the US,  it looked at health outcomes for children born of mothers who lived within a 10 mile radius of natural gas development in Colorado.

The researchers note that natural gas “emits several potential teratogens” – i.e. a substance which causes malformations. They suggest concerns around the health impacts of natural gas exposures are real and require more scientific study:

[quote]In this large cohort, we observed an association between density and proximity of natural gas wells within a 10-mile radius of maternal residence and prevalence of CHDs and possibly NTDs. Greater specificity in exposure estimates are needed to further explore these associations. [/quote]
According to the US-based Children’s Heart Foundation, “Congenital heart defects are the leading cause of all infant deaths in the United States,” with over 40,000 babies born every year, suffering from CHD.
Alberta doctors avoid linking health issues to Tar Sands-report

Alberta doctors avoid linking health issues to Tar Sands: report


Alberta doctors avoid linking health issues to Tar Sands-report

by Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

EDMONTON – Opposition politicians are raising concerns over a report done for Alberta’s energy regulator that suggests doctors are reluctant to draw links between health problems and the energy industry.

“We do have a culture in this province which actively diminishes healthy and important debate about the health and environmental effects of our dominant industry,” NDP critic Rachel Notley said Monday.

David Swann, a Liberal member of the legislature, said the government doesn’t even want to know the truth. Said Swann, who lost his job as a public health doctor for speaking out on climate change during the Tory government of Ralph Klein:

[quote]It’s clear the government doesn’t really want to know the best science in some of these areas. They haven’t funded it, and they haven’t disseminated the knowledge appropriately to the physician population.[/quote]

Hearing begins into health effects from oilpatch operations

On Tuesday, a hearing is set to begin in Peace River, Alta., about the source and effects of odours that landowners blame on the local oilpatch, particularly the operations of Baytex Energy.

Baytex uses an unusual method of heating bitumen in above-ground tanks to extract the oil. Residents say the fumes from those heated tanks are causing powerful gassy smells and leading to symptoms that include severe headaches, dizziness, sinus congestion, muscle spasms, popping ears, memory loss, numbness, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, eye twitching and fatigue.

Labs refuse to study health effects of petrochemical exposures

Among the reports commissioned for the hearing by the Alberta Energy Regulator is one from Margaret Sears, a doctor in chemical engineering, who has testified on environmental contamination for many bodies including the Royal Society of Canada.

Sears wrote that even though most health professionals believe petrochemical emissions affect health, Peace River doctors seemed unwilling to consider if the conditions their patients complained of were caused by long-term exposure to petrochemicals.

“There were reports from various sources that physicians would not diagnose a relationship between bitumen exposures and chronic symptoms, that physician care was refused for individuals suggesting such a connection,” she wrote.

Even medical labs refused to conduct an analysis when told it was to be used to try to establish such a link, said Sears.

Doctor refers patient to lawyer instead of offering treatment

One doctor, in a medical report released as part of the hearing, advised his patient “to go through environmental lawyers” and did not prescribe treatment.

Sears confirmed to The Canadian Press that her conclusions were based on interviews with both patients and doctors.

She wrote that the physicians’ reluctance stemmed in part from a lack of research they could use to form a credible opinion and in part from “fear of consequences.”

Conor not surprised

“I’m not surprised,” said Dr. John O’Connor, a doctor who was disciplined in 2007 for raising cancer concerns in the oilpatch community of Fort Chipewyan. The Alberta Cancer Board has since found elevated levels of four different cancers in the community.

“It has been said to me many a time over the last few years, or words to that effect,” he said.

[quote]It’s not easy. You set yourself up as a moving target.


Allan Garbutt, president of the Alberta Medical Association, said he couldn’t comment on the specific concerns in Sears’ report.

“I certainly agree that physicians must not feel intimidated in exercising their advocacy role,” he said.

“There would also be merit in exploring the report’s suggestion that better research on the impact of oil and gas emissions on patients and communities is needed for strong policy development. Better information, training and support for physicians to help diagnose their patients would always be welcome.”

Health Ministry downplays concerns

Matthew Grant, spokesman for Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne, downplayed Sears’s suggestions.

“No concerns of this nature have been forwarded to our office. We would always expect physicians to inform the government of any public health concerns they may have.”

Notley said the province has consistently avoided conducting research that could answer the kind of questions being raised in Peace River.

“The status quo is to believe that nothing’s wrong and all industry has to do is say, ‘Show us a mountain of evidence,'” she said. “It’s very imbalanced, and that imbalance works against people without the resources to build those mountains of evidence.”

Swann said Alberta public health doctors aren’t trained enough to be able to diagnose health complaints caused by environmental contamination.

“We haven’t been trained to do the physical assessment, order the right blood tests and put together the exposure with the health systems,” he said. “We’re working in ignorance, and there is the fear of challenging both government and industry in such a dominant industry activity here.”

Swann said his experience was widely noted among his colleagues.

“I paid a price, 10 years ago. I think the lesson most physicians took from that is that you speak up at your risk.”

West Virginia chemical spill closes much of capital

West Virginia chemical spill closes much of capital

West Virginia chemical spill closes much of capital
Freedom Industries’ Charleston plant (photo: / / iwasaround)

by John Raby, The Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Schools and restaurants closed, grocery stores sold out of bottled water, and state legislators who had just started their session cancelled the day’s business after a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston shut down much of the city and surrounding counties even as the extent of the danger remained unclear.

The federal government joined the state early Friday in declaring a disaster, and the West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties. In requesting the federal declaration, which makes federal resources available to the state, state officials said about 300,000 people were affected.

Federal authorities are also launching an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the spill and what caused it, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in a news release Friday.

Shortly after the Thursday spill from Freedom Industries hit the river and a nearby treatment plant, a licorice-like smell enveloped parts of the city, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued an order to customers of West Virginia American Water: Do not drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes with tap water.

The chemical, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries and overran a containment area. Freedom, a manufacturer of chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries, said in a news release Friday that the company is working to contain the leak to prevent further contamination. President Gary Southern also said the company still does not know how much of the chemical spilled from its operation into the river.

Officials say the orders were issued as a precaution, as they were still not sure exactly what hazard the spill posed to residents. It also was not immediately clear exactly how much of the chemical spilled into the river and at what concentration.

The tank that leaked holds at least 40,000 gallons, said Tom Aluise, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman. “We’re confident that no more than 5,000 gallons escaped,” he said. “A certain amount of that got into the river. Some of that was contained.”

Agency officials do not know how long the chemical had been leaking, Aluise said in a telephone interview. There was a breach in a concrete wall that served as a containment area to prevent spills from leaving the storage site, he said.

“Our understanding is it’s not an especially toxic material. It’s not dangerous necessarily to be around,” he said.

According to a fact sheet from Fisher Scientific, the chemical is harmful if swallowed — and could be so if inhaled — and causes eye and skin irritation. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, diarrhea, reddened skin, itching and rashes, according to a news release from the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

Freedom Industries will be responsible for cleanup at the site, Aluise said.

“I don’t know if the water is not safe,” water company president Jeff McIntyre said. “Until we get out and flush the actual system and do more testing, we can’t say how long this (advisory) will last at this time.”

McIntyre said the chemical isn’t lethal in its strongest form. Kanawha County emergency officials said the chemical is called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.

State law requires companies to report any industrial accidents within 15 minutes; those who fail to do so can face a fine up to $100,000. It is not clear how much time passed before Freedom reported the chemical spill.

The emergency declaration involves customers in all or parts of the counties of Kanawha, Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane. State Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said schools in at least five of the counties will be closed.

The smell from the spill was especially strong at the Charleston Marriott hotel a few blocks from the Elk River, which flows into the Kanawha River in downtown Charleston. The hotel notified guests Friday that they would be moved to another hotel in Huntington, about an hour’s drive away.

Even as the National Guard made plans to mobilize at an air base at Charleston’s Yeager Airport, many people — told to use water only for flushing toilets — weren’t waiting for outside help. For instance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was planning to deliver more than a million litres of water from nearby Maryland, but the first shipments were not expected to arrive until Friday night.

Once word got out about the governor’s declaration Thursday, customers stripped store shelves in many areas of items such as bottled water, paper cups and bowls. As many as 50 customers had lined up to buy water at a convenience store near the state capitol in Charleston.

“It was chaos, that’s what it was,” cashier Danny Cardwell said.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey warned residents about price gouging on water, ice and other items, calling it “just plain wrong” to inflate prices and encouraging those who’ve seen such practices to report them to his office’s consumer protection division.

Although the governor noted that the water advisory extended to restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes and other establishments that use tap water, state public safety spokesman Lawrence Messina said Friday that he wasn’t aware of any hospitals closing and that medical centres “seemed to have adequate water supply, at least for the short term.”

The Charleston Area Medical Center hospital chain was getting help from an unaffected hospital in Hurricane, W.Va., to sterilize equipment. That chain, which includes CAMC General, CAMC Memorial and CAMC Women and Children’s Hospital, had cancelled all elective surgeries, though emergency surgeries were to proceed, said Dale Witte, a spokesman for the hospitals.

Those hospitals have enough water to last at least 48 hours, and officials are working with authorities and other hospitals to address other water needs, Witte said. Of the system’s 6,000 employees, those who don’t deal directly with patients were told to stay home to minimize water use.

Witte said four patients were kept overnight for symptoms similar to what the chemical can cause, though it was not clear if those symptoms may have been caused by other issues given that it’s cold and flu season, Witte said.

At the Little India restaurant in Charleston, about 12 customers were asked to leave when bar manager Bill LaCourse learned about the shutdown notice.

Karlee Bolen, 16, of Charleston, said her family, including her parents, two sisters and brother, were considering the possibility of heading to her grandmother’s home in Braxton County, where tap water was unaffected, an hour to the northeast.

“I kind of want to shower and brush my teeth,” she said.

Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington, Pam Ramsey and Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report.

US woman sues Canadian mining titan Teck over toxins, disease

US woman sues Canadian mining titan Teck over toxins, disease

US woman sues Canadian mining titan Teck over toxins, disease
1988 image of effluent from Teck’s lead and Zinc smelter in Trail, BC (photo: Joel Rogers)

by Dene Moore, Canadian Press

VANCOUVER – A Washington state woman has filed a class-action lawsuit against Teck Resources (TSX:TCK.B), claiming toxic pollutants from the company’s smelter in southeastern British Columbia are to blame for her breast cancer diagnosis and other health ailments.

Barbara Anderson is a longtime resident of Northport, Wash., a small community about 30 kilometres south of Teck’s lead and zinc smelter in Trail.

The lawsuit filed in the Eastern District Court says Anderson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 and inflammatory bowel disease in 2010. Says the claim, filed Thursday:

[quote]Teck negligently, carelessly and recklessly generated, handled, stored, treated, disposed of and failed to control and contain the metals and other toxic substances at the Trail smelter, resulting in the release of toxic substances and exposure of plaintiff and the proposed class. [/quote]

US government, aboriginal group sue for $1 Billion in clean-up costs

The smelter has been in operation under various ownership since 1896. Last year, the Vancouver-based mining giant admitted in another lawsuit brought by the Colville Confederated Tribes that effluent from the smelter polluted the Columbia River in Washington for more than a century.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency eventually joined that lawsuit and wants Teck to pay the estimated $1-billion cost of cleaning up the contamination.

The latest lawsuit claims that between 1930 and 1995, the smelter discharged into the Columbia River at least 9 million tonnes of slag containing zinc, lead, copper, arsenic cadmium, barium, antimony, chromium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, selenium and titanium.

“This discharge was intentional and made with knowledge that the waste slag contained metals,” says the complaint.

Teck has spent more than a billion dollars on improvements to the Trail operation. Today, the company says, metals from the smelter are lower than levels that occur naturally in the river.

The company has also spent millions remediating the area in and around Trail following decades of industry, but the company said the international border complicates the issues.

Recent toxic release

Though the discharges were meant to end in 1996, the suit claims there have been numerous unintentional releases since then, most recently in March 2011, when 350,000 litres of caustic effluent went into the river.

A 2012 study by the Washington Department of Ecology found elevated levels of lead, antimony, mercury, zinc, cadmium and arsenic in soil, lakes and wetlands downriver from the plant, the lawsuit claims.

And another study, concluded this summer by the Crohn’s and Colitis Centre at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, found that among 119 current and former residents of Northport, there were 17 cases of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease — a rate 10 to 15 times higher than expected in a population of that size.

The lawsuit also says the smelter released 123 tonnes of mercury into the air from 1926 to 2005, and discharged at least 180 tonnes into the river in that time.

Complaints go back 70 years

Complaints south of the border about the contamination from the Trail smelter surfaced as early as the 1940s, when farmers from Washington state sued Cominco, Teck’s predecessor, over air pollution. That case was eventually resolved in arbitration by the two federal governments and set a precedent for cross-border pollution law.

Anderson and potentially others who could form part of a class-action, if approved, “have suffered a personal injury as a result of Teck’s wrongful conduct in violation of federal common law, nuisance, and Washington negligence and strict liability laws,” the claim says.

The suit asks the court for a declaration that the Trail smelter is “a public nuisance and an abnormally dangerous activity.”

[quote]Teck releases and has released hazardous and toxic substances, which create a high risk of significant harm…Teck has known or should have known about the potential health, safety and environmental dangers these substances pose to the public.[/quote]

The company has a duty to prevent injury, it says.

The allegations in the lawsuit have not been proven in court. Teck has yet to be served with the lawsuit and file a response with the court.

“It’s possible that this could take a long time,” Barbara Mahoney, Anderson’s lawyer, said Friday.

Quebec to investigate PCB contamination throughout province

Quebec to investigate PCB contamination throughout province


Quebec to investigate PCB contamination throughout province

MONTREAL – Quebec’s environment minister has announced a new inspection program will be carried out on known PCB sites in the province.

Yves-Francois Blanchet says priority will be given to 60 licensed PCB sites, which will be checked between now and April 2014.

The inspections will be carried out on 1,300 sites around the province over the next five years.

“All real and potential sites on Quebec’s territory will be visited to be checked to ensure that they conform to existing rules when it comes to PCBs,” Blanchet said.

[quote]We want to make sure no sites have slipped through and that our repertoire is up-to-date.[/quote]

Blanchet made the announcement at a news conference Tuesday in suburban Pointe-Claire, a town where a company had been illegally storing PCBs.

Toxic materials had been present there for years, but were only detected in March after a spill of about 1,000 litres on the property.

Reliance Power Equipment Ltd., the company that had been illegally storing the polychlorinated biphenyls, has ignored repeated warnings to clean up the mess.

In September, the Quebec government stepped in and took over the cleanup of the site, which could cost as much as $3.5 million.

Blanchet also told a news conference that decontamination of the site will resume in the spring.

Pointe-Claire Mayor Morris Trudeau said his town is working with other elected officials and Montreal fire services to ensure that prevention experts inspect all industrial buildings on the island of Montreal on a yearly basis.

The environment minister said the inspections across Quebec will be carried out using existing resources and without any additional inspectors.

He pointed to a chart which showed a massive reduction of PCBs in Quebec since 2000. The quantity of legally stored PCBs went from 1,200 metric tonnes to less than 200 metric tonnes in 2012.

Blanchet is also calling on residents who are worried that PCBs might be stored near their homes to contact his department.

The incident has stirred memories in Quebec of the 1988 St-Basile-le-Grand crisis, where thousands of people were evacuated from their homes following an explosion at a warehouse that housed PCBs.

First Nation in Ontario's 'Chemical Valley' affected by pollutants

First Nation in Ontario’s ‘Chemical Valley’ affected by pollutants


First Nation in Ontario's 'Chemical Valley' affected by pollutants

A new study is drawing attention to the health problems being faced by a First Nations community living near one of Canada’s most industrialized areas.

Members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation living on a reserve near Sarnia, Ont., have long suspected harmful chemicals were behind an unusually low male birth rate and slew of other reported health issues.

Now, tests performed by a McGill University professor suggest mothers and children are being exposed to higher-than-average levels of harmful hormone-blocking pollutants.

While the study doesn’t prove that the pollutants are to blame for earlier research that found baby girls outnumbered boys by a two-to-one ratio in the community, it does suggest a possible link.

Chemical Valley

The reserve at the centre of the study is located near a patch of southern Ontario that some environmental activists call “chemical valley.”

There are 60 industrial facilities found within a 25 kilometre radius of Aamjiwnaang lands.

“It’s the first study to really show that mothers and children in the area are exposed to a number of pollutants,” said Niladri Basu, a McGill professor and the study’s lead author.

More detailed research is needed to establish a connection between pollutants, health risks and the surrounding environment, Basu said.

Residents of Aamjiwnaang have been calling for such a study for years, though a lack of funding continues to impede more detailed research.

The Bucket Brigade

Ada Lockridge, who helped found Aamjiwnaang’s environmental committee, said pollution is a fact of life for the reserve’s roughly 800 residents.

Like others in the community, Lockridge keeps a special plastic bucket — as part of a group known as the “bucket brigade” — to collect environmental samples that can be tested for toxins whenever the air seems especially poor. The results are sent to a U.S.-based monitoring organization.

“It’s a beautiful place, but there is all kinds of industry close by,” she said.

According to Lockridge, the evidence continues to mount in favour of stricter environmental controls in the area.

“Everything we do gets us a little further, but it’s moving very slowly,” she said.

[quote]Every study we’ve ever done, people say, ‘this is cause for concern,’ but more studies need to be done.[/quote]

Sarnia home to 40% of Canada’s chemical industry

Approximately 40 per cent of Canada’s chemical industry is clustered in the area, according to a 2007 report by the Canadian environmental group Ecojustice.

Located at the southernmost tip of Lake Huron on the border between Ontario and Michigan, activists say the area has become one of Canada’s pollution hot spots — lined with chemical plants, manufacturing plants, and refineries.

Miscarriages and asthma

A 2006 community survey by Aamjiwnaang’s environment committee cited a number of health issues, including miscarriages, chronic headaches and asthma. Forty per cent of band members surveyed required an inhaler.

Elaine MacDonald, a scientist who co-authored the 2007 Ecojustice report, is hopeful Basu’s study will encourage further research.

As it stands, it’s difficult to draw a direct correlation between pollutants and health issues such as the low male birth rate.

“This is a start, and it’s a great start, but to me there’s so much that needs to be done, and there’s no money,” she said.

More studies needed, but government money hard to come by

MacDonald said it’s been difficult to get government funding at both the federal and provincial level. A more comprehensive study that includes the surrounding area, Lambton County, has stalled due to lack of funding. Said MacDonald:

[quote]The major exposures in this community are via air, so I would like to see a study focusing on air pollutants.[/quote]

Higher exposures to cadmium, mercury, PCBs

For the recent McGill study, 43 mother-child pairs from the community were tested for environmental pollutants. Blood, urine and hair samples were taken from those who participated.

Exposures were higher-than-average for chemicals such as cadmium, possibly mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs.

Potential sources of the chemicals are industry, the general environment, and the home. It’s not conclusive which is to blame in this case.

PCBs are used in industrial applications such as coolants in transformers and motors and have been largely banned, although they can remain in the environment for years.

Previous studies of other populations have linked exposure to PCBs with low male birth rates.

Aamjiwnaang’s low male birth rate was documented in research published in the U.S. journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Between 1999 and 2003, the sex ratio of girls to boys was roughly 33 per cent for boys and 67 per cent for girls.

BC's Fiscal Mess: Hydro, LNG Numbers Don't Add Up

BC to study air pollution impacts from proposed LNG plants

BC's Fiscal Mess: Hydro, LNG Numbers Don't Add Up
Proposed LNG plant in Kitimat – artist’s rendering

VICTORIA – The B.C. government will spend $650,000 to study potential air pollution impacts of proposed industrial developments — including liquefied natural gas plants — in the Kitimat area, a decision opposition politicians and scientists are calling better-late-than-never.

The Liberals said Thursday the Kitimat Air Shed Impact Assessment Project aims to examine the cumulative air pollution effects of existing and proposed industrial air emissions in the so-called Kitimat air shed area, a long, thin, tunnel-like valley with mountains on either side.

The study will forecast the ability of Kitimat’s air shed — which is smaller, but similar in shape to the air shed that runs from Vancouver to Chilliwack in the Fraser Valley — to handle emissions from the existing Rio Tinto Alcan aluminum smelter, three proposed liquefied natural gas terminals, a proposed oil refinery and a crude-oil export facility.

The study will also consider the impact of emissions from gas-turbine powered electrical generation facilities used to create LNG and focus on the sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions from these facilities.

UBC prof: study too rushed

LNG plants require huge amounts of electricity and the companies appear to be looking to generate power by burning natural gas.

Prof. Douw Steyn at the University of B.C.’s earth, oceans and atmospheric sciences department, said the decision to study the ability of Kitimat’s air shed to handle potential air pollution from industrial development makes sense from business, social and environmental perspectives.

Steyn said earlier this year that business, government and the community all need to have a better idea of the area’s environmental capabilities before massive development occurs.

He said the study is much needed, but he is concerned the March 2014 deadline is too short.

“I think six months is screamingly fast for that,” Steyn said Thursday.

[quote]I can understand why they want it. The big question is: ‘Is that timeline being driven by the cause of industry or by prudent science.'[/quote]

The government said conclusions from the study will be used to inform environmental assessment work and regulatory decisions in the Kitimat area. A government-hired contractor is set to start collecting surface water and soil samples next week for analysis.

Kitimat prone to air pollution issues

Steyn said light winds and the long, narrow shape of the surrounding Kitimat area makes it prone to holding air for long periods, which could create pollution problems.

“It is trapped both by the topography, the valley that it’s in, all the way up from Kitimat to Terrace, down through the Douglas Channel,” he said. “It’s very restrictive, very tall, with flowing light winds.”

Opposition New Democrat natural gas critic Robin Austin, who represents the Kitimat-Terrace area, said the government air shed study should have been undertaken long ago, but at least it’s happening now. He said area residents want a better understanding of potential environmental impacts associated with the projects.

“Clearly, they need to examine our air shed and come up with what is the best solution,” he said. “How much can the air shed hold? So, I’m glad they are doing this ahead of any of the companies coming to a final investment decision.”

BC LNG could be far dirtier than other jurisdictions

Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver, who is also a climate scientist, said the government is taking a responsible approach by conducting the assessment before any major development occurs.

“Doing this all at once is a really wise idea,” he said.

Premier Christy Clark has pledged to develop the world’s cleanest LNG, an industry that she has touted will represent a trillion-dollar economic opportunity and will create 100,000 jobs for British Columbians.

Last month, Clean Energy Canada, an affiliate of Tides Canada, issued a report that warned natural gas-fuelled LNG operations in B.C. could emit more than three-times the carbon emissions produced at other plants around the world.

Canada mulls crackdown on pesticide suspected of killing bees

Canada mulls crackdown on pesticide suspected of killing bees


Canada mulls crackdown on pesticide suspected of killing bees

OTTAWA – The federal Health Department is proposing tighter rules for the use of a pesticide that is suspected of killing honey bees.

It is asking for public comment on the issue over the next 90 days.

The department wants to hear from stakeholders and other interested parties people about its plans for stricter controls on the use of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed.

It wants the new rules in place by the time planting starts next year.

The department is calling for safer planting practices, efforts to reduce dust from seeders, new pesticide label warnings and updated information on the need to treat soy and corn seed with insecticide.

The department say studies in 2012 and 2013 found bee deaths were higher in heavy corn-production areas where neonicotinoids are used.

It suspects the deaths are linked to contaminated dust kicked up during planting. In its consultation document, the department said:

[quote]We have concluded that current agricultural practices related to the use of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed are not sustainable. For the 2014 planting season, we intend to implement additional protective measures for corn and soybean production.[/quote]

Beekeepers have been pushing for a complete ban on these pesticides.

Europe already has ban

Last spring, the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association welcomed a European Union ban on three suspect insecticides.

“The EU vote clearly shows there is scientific and public support around the globe for policies which protect honey bees and other pollinators and recognize their essential role in food production and healthy ecosystems,” association president Dan Davidson said at the time.

The beekeepers say neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides that are absorbed into plant tissues and can leach into ground water.

The association says these chemicals are toxic to bees, as well as earthworms, birds and fish.

It says the health of the food production system is at stake.

“Ontario’s fruit and vegetable farmers depend on adequate pollination by honey bees, bumble bees and wild bees,” Davidson said.

Read David Suzuki’s recent story on the mystery of dying bees.