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Parents Warned of Toxic Tar Ponds Soil

Lead, arsenic too high, study finds

Apr 7, 2003 | Toronto Star Mothers were once again warned to keep their children out of the toxic dirt of a polluted neighbourhood in Cape Breton yesterday as the latest in a series of studies of the infamous Sydney Tar Ponds delivered more bad news.

"Eating dirt is a very normal behaviour for young children; in these neighbourhoods, parents need to make sure their children don't do that," said study author Timothy Lambert, a professor of community health science at the University of Calgary.

"And parents with very young children should wash their floor every day."

Lambert tested the soil and house dust in three Sydney neighbourhoods for lead and arsenic. He found lead levels above federal environmental guidelines in the yards of all three neighbourhoods and lead and arsenic levels he considered alarming in homes as well.

A government official yesterday denounced the study, which was funded by the Sierra Club of Canada.

"There is just simply no evidence that there is any health risk posed to people in this community," said government spokesperson Parker Barss Donham.

"This is just fear mongering; it is propaganda masquerading as science."

Sierra Club has been battling the federal and provincial government for several years to evacuate a polluted neighbourhood just north of one of Canada's most infamous toxic waste sites.

In May, 2001, Elizabeth May, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, went on a 17-day hunger strike on Parliament Hill to try to force the issue, and several Sierra Club activists and Whitney Pier residents have been arrested while protesting the issue.

Government officials have steadfastly refused their requests, saying any environmental problems can be fixed without a costly relocation.

The Sydney tar ponds and coke ovens are located in a vast field and estuary contaminated with at least 40,000 tonnes of PCBs, as well as a toxic brew of many other chemicals. The site, which is surrounded by homes, is the legacy of more than a century of steel production.

Whitney Pier residents first discovered arsenic in their yards in 1998, and asked to be moved.

A few homes were bought and torn down by a provincial government on the eve of a general election, but both levels of government have since refused to relocate anyone.

Many in the neighbourhood blame Sydney's unusual disease rates on the pollution. Several studies have found that Sydney has much higher rates of cancer, cancer deaths and birth defects than the rest of Canada.

Some officials have chalked the disease rates up to lifestyle, but Lambert doesn't buy that argument.

"Sydney's smoking rate is not unusual. It doesn't make sense that smoking is driving a higher cancer rate. Something else has to be going on."

The provincial government has launched several soil studies in the neighbourhood. One of those studies initially recommended that children not play outside in Whitney Pier until the neighbourhood was cleaned up.

A second study recommended only that children be kept out of certain specific "hot spots," which the government has since mostly cleaned up.

Two years ago, the government tested 372 people in Sydney for lead and arsenic poisoning. No children were found to have lead levels above what government considers an acceptable threshold.

"We didn't screw around testing dust," Donham said.

"We tested children and women of child-bearing age and we found not one child with elevated lead levels, not one."

The study did find some children with elevated arsenic levels.

The Sierra Club has criticized that study's methodology, saying it was designed not to discover whether there is a problem in the neighbourhood, but to exonerate the government from responsibility.

Donham yesterday levelled similar charges at the Sierra Club, saying the dust study was irrelevant.

Lambert's study was the first to look for lead and arsenic inside homes near the Tar Ponds. His was also one of the first to systematically survey neighbourhoods to the east and south of the Tar Ponds as well as the north.

He took samples at the door of homes and in the kitchen as well. Because he found lead levels higher at the front door than farther inside the home, he concluded that the lead pollution is coming from an outside problem, not an inside one such as smoking, old paint or a coal-fired stove.

Both sides agreed yesterday that one point in Lambert's study is significant — that all three neighbourhoods have similar pollution levels.

Donham said that suggests the long-recognized pollution problems of Whitney Pier might not have been caused by pollution from the steel plant, because little of the plant's smoke fell on the other two neighbourhoods.

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