Air Emissions in Canada Causing Health Concerns?

Posted by on Jun 11, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

Are industrial emissions the cause of the higher-than-average rates of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in several Canadian Cities?  This is a very complex and emotional topic, but a new study may be helpful in understanding and addressing industrial emissions.

High Rates of Cancer

As reported in Canada’s National Observer, “A new peer-reviewed study has found ‘strikingly high’ rates of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in Canadian border towns, including Sarnia, Ont., a city whose manufacturing sector is referred to as Canada’s Chemical Valley.”

The study found “hot spots” for AML in other Ontario cities as well, including Hamilton, Thunder Bay, Sault Saint Marie, and St. Catharines.

However, it’s the Sarnia area that has been getting a lot of attention, including Aamjiwnaang First Nation.

Study Results

The study results, published by Wiley Online Library, states, “In total, 18,085 patients were identified.  AML incidence was documented to be 30.61 cases per million individuals per year (95% confidence interval [CI], 30.17‐31.06) from 1992 to 2010.  Five industrial cities in Ontario were identified where incidence rates were significantly higher than the national average: Sarnia, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay, St. Catharines, and Hamilton.  …Specifically, FSA N7V (postal codes) in Sarnia, Ontario had an incidence of 106.81 (95% CI, 70.96‐161.86) cases per million individuals per year, which is >3 times higher than the national average” (emphasis added).

Elevated Benzene Associated with AML?

The report in the National Observer also stated, “The study found that cities with the highest levels of benzene in the air such as Sarnia, were also the cities with the highest levels of AML… recent federal air monitoring data released to Global News by Environment and Climate Change Canada show that benzene levels in Aamjiwnaang First Nation, on the south side of Sarnia, were three times the regulated annual limit in 2017.”

United Nations Tours First Nations in Sarnia

The health and environmental issues in Sarnia are not new, but the concerns are getting more attention, including the attention of the United Nations (UN).

On June 3, 2019, the Sarnia Observer reported, “Human rights expert and United Nations representative Baskut Tuncak toured the south side of Sarnia on the weekend on the last of eight stops in a nation-wide tour.  The visit came only days after the release of a study by Montreal researchers that said the border city has significantly higher rates of a form of leukemia compared to the national average, findings disputed by local public health brass” (see the summary from Baskut Tuncak).

Dragun Advisory Role

Dragun Corporation has served in an advisory capacity for the Aamjiwnaang community for the last six years.  Our role as environmental advisors is to monitor existing efforts to address environmental concerns in the community and includes critical review and evaluation of the sampling and analysis of air, water, and soil data collected in the vicinity of the Aamjiwnaang community in Sarnia.  From these data, we provide fact-based explanations to senior leadership and the community with respect to the sampling and analysis.  In this role, the Aamjiwnaang community asked us to be involved with the UN visit to their community.

Cancer Clusters

So if we know that benzene is a carcinogen, some communities are exposed to higher rates of benzene, and some communities have higher rates of AML, why can’t we connect the dots?  Researchers will tell you that cancer clusters are complicated and it’s difficult to prove a direct cause and effect.

From the New York Times in 2015, “Over the years, state and federal epidemiologists have looked into hundreds of incidents in which people have reported what they feared were unusually high concentrations of cancer.  Only a fraction of these turned out to be genuine anomalies, with cancer rates that were actually higher than demographics would suggest.”

Clifford Lawton and Christopher Paré of Dragun explain data to UN Representative, Baskut Tuncak, during a site tour on June 1, 2019. Photo credit: Aamjiwnaang

Benzene Sources

Benzene is a common chemical.  According to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, “Everyone is exposed to a small amount of benzene every day.  You are exposed to benzene in the outdoor environment, in the workplace, and in the home.  Exposure of the general population to benzene mainly occurs through breathing air that contains benzene.  The major sources of benzene exposure are tobacco smoke, automobile service stations, exhaust from motor vehicles, and industrial emissions. Vapors (or gases) from products that contain benzene, such as glues, paints, furniture wax, and detergents, can also be a source of exposure.”

Communities such as Sarina have every right to expect that the air/water in their community is safe and that industry complies with environmental laws and regulations.

Currently, companies in Sarnia are required to do fence-line air-quality monitoring and report the results on their websites.

MECP Allocates Money for Study

Ontario Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, Rod Phillips, said, “The people of Sarnia and the people of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation deserve to understand, what if any, health impacts this has had.”  Phillips also said that when he took over (for Chris Ballard), he discovered no money had been set aside for a previously-promised health study in Sarnia.  Phillips went on to say that money has been allocated to study the air emissions in the community.

If you have questions about our work for First Nations, please contact Allan Clifford (Cliff) Lawton at 519-979-7300, ext. 104.

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