Friday, September 25, 1998 The Halifax Herald Limited
Doctors puzzled by problem
By TERA CAMUS / Cape Breton Bureau
Sydney - Sydney-area residents have a shorter lifespan
than other Canadians but no one can yet say why.
Health Canada scientist Dr. Michel Camus says area
residents are dying about 16 per cent sooner than they
should for their ages - about 10 years before their time.
"It means a shorter lifespan," he told a Thursday morning
media briefing held to discuss his and Dr. Pierre Band's
The two scientists determined industrial Cape Breton had
22 causes of death with rates much higher than in the rest
of Canada. Their findings were released Wednesday after
a two-year study of health records from 1951 to 1994.
They also determined the cancer rate is 16 per cent higher
per capita in Sydney than anywhere else in Canada.
"It's not only the cancers but we must look at the cancer
rates in perspective," Dr. Camus said. "We were very
surprised to see there were similar excess (deaths) for
cardiovascular diseases, lung cancer, respiratory diseases
and diabetes, which (people) are at a much higher risk (of
dying) here than for cancer.
"That is the most striking feature that we see in this
He has a few theories on why the numbers for the Sydney
area are so high but said more study is needed.
"It means that there are many risk factors acting together,
jointly, in this population, and we cannot tell which risk
factor is responsible for these excess health risks.
"It doesn't mean there's not an environmental factor that
could have caused that."
The Joint Action Group for Environmental Cleanup
ordered the mortality study in November 1996 as part of
its mandate to clean up the toxic waste sites in downtown
JAG chairman Bucky Buchanan said Phase2 of the study,
which will determine the cause of the high rates, is
expected to be approved before the year's end.
"We will initiate some intervention as soon as we can and
we'll continue to gather other types of information that
paints the entire picture for trying to create a healthy
community," Mr. Buchanan said.
It has yet to be proven, but the cause of the high disease
rates is believed to be the infamous tar ponds - which
have 700,000 tonnes of sludge with cancer-causing
polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) - and a contaminated
150-hectare coke ovens site nearby.
Health Minister Jim Smith said his department will push
for the second phase of the study.
"I think we have to keep this before us and I think (we
need) a comprehensive awareness. ... It is a community
that needs a lot of work."
Sydney-Victoria MP Peter Mancini demanded Thursday
to know how many more people will have to die before
the government will act on this file.
"The findings in this study confirm what we've known all
along - the people of Cape Breton have paid a huge price
for the industrial progress of Nova Scotia and Canada.
"They've paid with their lives."
The Cape Breton New Democrat called on the federal
and provincial governments to immediately set up an early
detection centre for cancer.
As well, he said, it is imperative that the people who live
next to the tar ponds and coke ovens sites be relocated.
Mr. Mancini said it will take years to find out exactly
what's in the tar ponds and how to clean them up. In the
meantime, nobody should continue to be exposed to what
is obviously a very dangerous area, he said.
Federal Environment Minister Christine Stewart said
Thursday she finds the results of the study very disturbing
and is taking them seriously.
"We are concerned about these statistics and we're
planning on meeting with provincial officials and ministers
in the coming week to discuss the issue and how we might
But JAG will continue to take the lead, she said.
"It's for the JAG to determine what kind of action they
want, and when and whenever they have given us that
signal and specific requests, we have responded and it's
our commitment to continue to do so."
Dr. Band and Dr. Camus say a combination of
environment and lifestyle factors could be causing
Industrial Cape Breton's high death rate from certain
"We don't know by health data whether people have
different health habits in Sydney than the rest of Cape
Breton County," Dr. Camus said.
"We know there are different pollution sources, but on the
other hand in Cape Breton County you have coal dust
clouds. ... We don't know."
The two scientists say the death rates from many of the
killer diseases have levelled off in Industrial Cape Breton
since the 1980s but are still higher than in the rest of
Besides higher than average rates for cancers of the lung,
stomach, breast, pancreas and bone marrow,
Sydney-area people are dying from asthma, diabetes,
multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease more often than
The rates of cancers and non-cancerous diseases alike
are higher in the area, Dr. Band said.
"If you exclude Cape Breton County from Nova Scotia,
then the Nova Scotia rates become very similar to the rest
of Canada," he said. "The major health problem in Nova
Scotia is related to what happens in Cape Breton
He also said many of the cancers found can be prevented
by diet and lifestyle changes, public education and proper
The two scientists delivered their findings to fewer than 10
residents who showed up for a public meeting Thursday
Juanita McKenzie, a Frederick Street resident, was
shocked and a little saddened that hardly anyone outside
the media, JAG and police bothered to attend.
"For the whole of Sydney and the county of Cape Breton
that is included in this study, I think people really have to
open their eyes here and they have to realize, my God, a
member of their family is probably in that study, and why
aren't they here asking why did my family die? Why does
Sydney have the highest (cancer) rate in Canada?
"This isn't normal. ... I would think that people would take
more time ... and realize this is a very serious problem for
- With Brian Underhill, Ottawa bureau
Copyright © 1998 The Halifax Herald Limited
- Cancer killed 16 per cent more people per capita in industrial
Cape Breton than in the nation
from 1951 to 1994.
- Lip cancer deaths were double the national standard.
- Stomach cancer deaths were 50 per cent more common in Sydney than in the rest of the
- Cervical cancer deaths exceeded the national rate by 82 per cent in industrial Cape Breton
and 79 per cent in Sydney.
- Women in Sydney died from salivary gland cancer at almost four times the national norm.
- Deaths from skin cancer in women were double the national rate.
- Higher than expected death rates also showed up in cancers of the lung (20 per cent higher),
pancreas (30), prostate (17), myeloid leukemias (men 71), breast (25), colon (35) and
esophagus (men 52).
- Deaths from other leukemias and colon cancer in men were significantly lower than the
- About 12 per cent fewer Sydney children under 15 died from leukemia, cancer, circulatory disesases, mental illness and metabolic disorders than the national standard. But 13 per cent more children than expected died in places like New Waterford, Glace Bay and North Sydney.
- For non-cancer diseases, the top killer in Sydney was pneumoconiosis. The death rate
was 15 times the national average.
- Silicosis and anthracosis accounted for 16 times more deaths per capita in Sydney than
in the rest of the country, while the death rate from miner's lung was 75 times higher than
- Women died from pregnancy complications at a rate 83 per cent higher than the national
- About 42 per cent more women died from diabetes in Sydney than elsewhere in Canada
while the death rate for men killed by diabetes was double the national average.
- Deaths caused by hypertension, Alzheimer's disease or multiple sclerosis occurred at twice the
national average in Sydney.
- Deaths from falls and fires were 32 per cent higher than in the rest of the nation.
SYDNEY'S NOTORIOUS TAR PONDS
Some facts about the Sydney tar ponds, considered to be Canada's worst toxic waste site:
HOW FORMED: For almost a century, the sooty runoff
from the coke ovens of the Sydney Steel
plant was discharged into the in downtown Sydney.
POLLUTION: About 700,000 tonnes of toxic sludge plugs the ponds, contaminated by
polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated byphenyls, or PCBs.
SIZE: The ponds, divided by a short causeway leading to the plant, are about a kilometre long
and empty into Sydney harbour.
CLEANUP EFFORTS: Some of the coke oven structures have been torn down and a fence
encloses the site. The federal and provincial governments signed an agreement Sept.19 to fund the
cleanup, expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Liberals say smoking, poor diet part of cancer problem
By AMY SMITH / Provincial Reporter
of Sydney residents contribute to high cancer rates in the area, two top
"The heavy incidence
of smoking in the industrial area, which goes hand in hand with
the industrial economy, diets, habits - all of these things have been documented as
causes of certain cancers," Economic Development Minister Manning MacDonald
said Thursday before cabinet.
He was responding
to a study released Wednesday that said cancer has been killing
Sydney residents at a rate above the Canadian average for decades.
The study, started
in November 1996, determined 22 causes of death were much
higher in Sydney than in the rest of Canada.
Jim Smith agreed there must be a plan to change the way Sydney
residents treat their health.
"Not that it
was anyone's fault necessarily, because sometimes it's a lack of
knowledge, a lack of access perhaps for people to be screened for Pap smears,
those types of issues," Mr. Smith said.
But both said
lifestyles are not the sole cause of the cancers and other major illnesses
Calling the study
"a piercing glimpse into the obvious," Mr. MacDonald said Cape
Bretoners have worked and lived under unhealthy conditions for decades.
"If you make
steel and coal for 100 years and if you are lying on your back in a coal
mine breathing in coal dust for 60 or 70 years - over that period of time, you are
going to have some resulting problems," Mr. MacDonald said.
"I think that
the people of Industrial Cape Breton are paying the price for contributing
to the economy in a very meaningful way."
But Mr. MacDonald
said steelmaking has improved over the years since the Sydney
plant has switched to electric arc operations.
He said the toxic
waste at the tar ponds has to be cleaned up as soon as possible;
the only problem is getting people to agree on how to do it.
said the province can't fund the cleanup by itself. He hopes the new
study will encourage the federal government to loosen its purse strings and kick in
Tory Leader John
Hamm said all Nova Scotians - not just those in Sydney - need to
take better care of themselves.
"I see children
smoking in the schoolyards. I've seen unhealthy diets across this
province," said Mr. Hamm, who practised medicine in Stellarton before entering
"We have unrealistically high instances of cancers across the province."
Robert Chisholm said the obvious move now is toward early
detection and cancer prevention.
the practice of charging a $5 tray fee for Pap tests, saying it discourages
low-income women from having the procedure.
Such high rates
of cancer would not be accepted in any other part of the province,
Mr. Chisholm said.
should not be asked to accept greater health risks because of what
they do for a living or where they live," he said in a news release.
MP Peter Mancini said he met Wednesday with federal Health
Minister Allan Rock about the situation.
Copyright © 1998 The Halifax Herald Limited
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