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Death Valley? Proponents of a multi-million dollar health study forge ahead despite new evidence

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Cathy Dobson

Evidence is mounting that most cancer rates in Sarnia are not greater than the rest of Ontario and that local industry continues to reduce harmful chemical emissions.

And within weeks, results of a new study by Cancer Care Ontario are expected to be released that will analyze whether Sarnians living near Chemical Valley have a higher rate of disease than those who don’t.

What’s more, a respected scientist is hard at work trying to determine if industrial emissions are impacting reproductive health, especially among First Nations people.

Those are all key questions that a local group, chaired by Coun. Anne Marie Gillis, has been trying to answer for the past eight years.  Since 2007, Gillis’ committee has been pushing for a major health study that could cost as much as $4.8 million to determine if there is a co-relation between heavy industry and the health of residents.

It’s been tough slogging, Gillis admits.  But the fact other studies are answering the committee’s key questions isn’t stopping her.

“We still have two questions to answer and the big one is if there is higher risk of disease with exposure to chemicals. The second is about respiratory problems and our children,” she said.

The health study was initiated because of a growing assumption that Sarnia is not a good place to live due to health risks, she said.

That is perception, not fact-based, and the committee wants to find out if there really is a correlation between health and living in the shadow of a cluster of petrochemical industries.

“If we find there is no co-relation, then I think it gives us peace of mind and we have something to present to the public to counter any negativity,” said Gillis.

“If it goes the other way and there is a correlation, then we have something to take to government to say we need to set up clinics, we need to strengthen legislation and enforcement.”

The committee has spent years seeking money and searching for political will to launch the comprehensive health study. Now Gillis is convinced momentum is building. She also has reason to believe major federal funding will be announced soon, she said.

This week, three committee members are invited to Ottawa to meet with researchers with the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR).

“There’s a lot of people working to make this happen,” said Gillis. “ In fact, we’ve been praised by the scientific community for sticking with it.”

Dean Edwardson, general manager of the industry-funded Sarnia Lambton Environmental Association (SLEA), is one of the committee delegates going to Ottawa.

“The CIHR is giving us a forum to connect with potential researchers,” he said. “Although the statistics we’ve been hearing are encouraging, we still have questions about the air related to some cancer rates.”

SLEA believes there’s still reason to pursue a study.

Edwardson represents 18 Chemical Valley companies and maintains air and water testing shows diminishing sulphur dioxide levels in the air are well within Ontario regulatory standards.

The ten-year trend is downward for total reduced sulphur and nitrogen oxides too.  And water sampling shows fewer contaminants.

“Industry has been improving emissions and will keep making improvements,” Edwardson said.

It’s important for Sarnia to have its own health study to put “negative perceptions” to rest, he said.

“We’ve been trying to deal with innuendo about our health in Sarnia-Lambton.  We need to know what’s real and what’s not real.”


Crystal Palleschi, Lambton Public Health epidemiologist:  “We don’t have higher rates in Sarnia-Lambton for most cancers.”

Incident rates in Sarnia-Lambton compared to rest of Ontario for most types of cancer.

* Lung cancer in men 16% higher than provincial rate; 23% higher for women

* Mesothelioma rate 5 times the provincial rate

* Colorectal and prostate cancer in males slightly higher than provincial rate

* Liver cancer in men lower than provincial rate

* Stomach and thyroid cancers in women lower than provincial rate

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