With additional reporting by Michael Toledano.
Canada’s Chemical Valley is a 25km-squared area in Sarnia, Ontario where 40% of our petrochemical industry is centralized. You may already be familiar with this industrial cluster of big money and pollution if you caught our documentary about the area that we aired earlier this year—it investigates the complex environmental and political situation in the region.
When we were making that film, many of the supporters from industry (and naysayers who insist it’s not environmentally problematic for that many plants and refineries to be operating in such a small space) relied on a defense that essentially said there was no hard evidence to connect any health defects found in the workers of Chemical Valley, the residents of nearby First Nations reserve Aamjiwnaang, or those in South Sarnia with the pollutants that the Valley spews out. That defense is certainly worth arguing for those who are invested in the Valley, because there has been no government health study to investigate the claims that, for example, Aamjiwnaang has excessive cancer and miscarriage rates. The most infamous study done in Aamjiwnaang found that for every one boy being born, there were two girls—but even that data is a decade old.
Last week, however, the University of Michigan published their findings from a recent health study they conducted in Aamjiwnaang—specifically to test mothers and children for chemical exposure. While this study was not done on the scale that the community is asking the federal government to perform, it did indeed find that “mothers and children in the Aamjiwnaang region are exposed to a number of environmental pollutants” and that “some exposures trended higher than the average Canadian.”
This study states the obvious for anyone who has ever been to the Chemical Valley: “Aamjiwnaang is surrounded by pollution." Beyond adding scientific clarification to observations made in the earlier health study—specifically, that high levels of estrogen blocking and mimicking PCBs, found in the bodies of those who participated, could be the cause of the skewed sex ratio that made Aamjiwnaang famous a decade ago—it also points out that 60% of the Valley’s emissions occur within 5km of Aamjiwnaang, a reserve where about 850 people live today. The scientists from UoM tested the blood and urine of 42 mother-child pairs from the reserve, and concluded that the exposures seem to be higher than the average Canadian for chemicals like cadmium, mercury, perfluorochemicals, previously banned manmade chemicals known as PCBs, and organochlorine pesticides.
The most alarming discovery certainly appears to be that PCBs, which were banned from being used in Canada decades ago, are showing up in the bloodstreams of Aamjiwnaang residents in 2013. To clear up the ramifications of this, we spoke to Jim Brophy, an activist and scientist who has been studying the health risks in the Sarnia area for a large part of his career. He called the University’s findings “very disturbing.”
“We don’t know exactly what the health implications are when you find PCBs in a person’s blood or urine when it’s sampled like this. We don’t know, they can’t tell you ‘well this number means you’ll get cancer’ or ‘this number means you’ll have neurological problems or you’ll have attention deficit.’ What we do know is that these chemicals are very powerful agents. PCBs mimic hormones that are either estrogenic or anti-estrogenic. And hormones, specifically in young children and in pregnant women, can have huge implications for a person’s lifetime health history. They set you up and make you susceptible for a whole host of problems. So if you find that chemical in your system, the first thing it means is that you have been exposed. The second thing is that these exposures carry risks to them.”
The risk that these chemicals—which can pose as estrogen hormones in the human body—can cause for exposed human beings is terrifying. Brophy explained this further:
“As we develop, especially in-utero, our whole system—the architecture of our brain, our nervous system, our heart, our lungs, and all of our organs—is being programmed. Hormones are the messengers in your body that communicate to cells, genes, and chromosomes, to do things in a certain order and sequence. If you get the wrong message, if your body thinks that it has estrogen, but it’s in fact one of the PCBs, it has a very different effect. It binds to these receptors that are on our cells. Then it’s not the estrogen that’s saying ‘do this, do this, do this,’ it’s actually PCBs creating a very different set of communications and changes in the cell structures, in the genetic structures, in the chromosome sequences and so forth. So this is a very big problem.”
Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much action being taken by the industry watchdogs to regulate these PCBs, as it does not appear they’re even monitoring them in the first place, nor do they have any control over these so-called “legacy” chemicals that were banned from use decades ago. We spoke to Dean Edwardson, the go-to industry spokesman and the General Manager of the Sarnia-Lambton Environmental Agency, about these new findings.
“At no time were PCBs manufactured in Sarnia, nor do we monitor for them. We certainly haven’t done air monitoring [for PCBs]… Now there’s been an awful lot of work done on PCBs in sediment and that sort of thing in the past, and unfortunately it is a chemical that was used widely in industry back in the 40s and 50s—primarily in capacitors and transformers and electrical equipment. So unfortunately it’s pretty ubiquitous in the environment right now.”
This toxic, phony estrogen (that’s apparently ubiquitous) is certainly a cause for concern. While the findings of UoM’s study are admittedly limited, they’re also a small step forward for the people of Aamjiwnaang who have been consistently raising alerts that their health is being compromised by the massive amount of industry polluting the air around them.
To get a sense of the reaction to this study on the ground in Aamjiwnaang, we spoke to Christine Rogers, a mother of three daughters. She also helped find mothers and children to be studied by the University so they could get this study moving. Christine is understandably distressed.
“As a mother, it’s not some family somewhere in another location, it’s your family. And the people who participated in this study, those people, I know them… It’s actually pretty sickening… It’s really had an impact on me. I wasn’t sure of the impact it was going to have, but seeing it now, I don’t even know that I want to live where I live now. I’m making a choice to be there and that’s a conscious decision that I’m making—even when there’s proof in our blood that we shouldn’t be living here. So I’m battling that right now, as a mother…
It’s like confirming your worst fears. Not only did they do the blood samples, they did a developmental study, and they also confirmed that the chemicals that they’re finding in our bodies are the ones that are causing developmental delays. Based on the developmental testing, the children who were tested all had developmental delays.”
As for the PCBs, Christine says: “That’s the impact of not properly regulating the chemicals to begin with. Had they had a better understanding of what the chemicals were, would we find them at the levels that they’re at in our bodies today? They need to start regulating chemicals better.”
According to Christine, the community seems somewhat reluctant about participating in health studies like these—insofar as people do not want to be looked at as some kind of scientific abnormality: “People in the community don’t want to be guinea pigs, [they don’t want] to be looked at that way.” But at the same time, the sheer determination of the environmental activists, who receive little to no support from government, continues to propel this issue into the forefront.
As Jim Brophy told us: “It’s a real credit to the environmental activists in Sarnia that this work continues… The community has not given up on this. A lot of people could just say, ‘well look, there’s nothing I can do about it,’ become discouraged and say ‘forget it, I won’t do anything.’ I think it’s a real credit to their community that they’re not going away, they want something done. And I think the fact that the mothers and their children participated is a sign of that.”
As for removing the PCBs from the air, Dean Edwardson was unable to reassure us when he stated: “They are persistent, and it’ll take a while before they go away.”
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire