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A Cure for Sceptics


Sam North
... the dead trees are a great signifier of what peoples' lungs could look like.

'For Sale: 3 bed riverside condo, aircon, 1050sq.ft, 50 metres from Pulp and Paper Mill- emission levels for Nox, Sox, PM10s, PM2.5’s on request. $295,000
(Pets and children not advised)

*This article was written in 2000/1 and things may well have gotten a lot better environmentally in Kitimat. But the sentiments remain - check the air quality before you buy.

‘Come to Kitimat, a better place to live and work’.

Going to Kitimat, situated on the Douglas Channel on Highway 37 should be a great idea. The Chamber of Commerce boasts great fishing, hiking, clean air, sailing, all the great outdoor pursuits. But, a bit like ‘Bladerunner’ - the movie, with it’s slogan ‘Come to the Off world for a better life’ the Chamber of Commerce website doesn’t bother to extol the virtues of the days when the air isn’t so clean. The mainstay of Kitimats’ job resources are Alcan Aluminium Smelter, Methanex and Eurocan - Pulp and Paper (tours can be arranged in summer). Nor do they mention that many trees stand dead behind the smelter.

Kitimat was once a peaceful native fishing village where a natural cycle of life has continued for some time. Fishing, hunting, cold in winter, not too hot in summer. No one ever really got rich and yet few really ever went hungry, as long as they knew how to fish. Most people didn’t have to worry about mortgage payments either as they built the homes they lived in and the land was practically free.

Kitimat isn’t like that now. The folks who live there now probably wouldn’t want to live off the land and sea, they need the heat in winter, the Diner for sustenance and of course the bars. (Sunday Church is busy but in summer it's inconvenient and conflicts with sporting activities or all that ‘better life’ that’s out there). If you did go to Church they’d be ranting about how the rest of the world has gone to hell. But life is getting expensive and when you have to buy a Dodge truck or a Ford SUV to go with your shotgun, well you’re going to need a high paying job to pay for the gas.

The Eurocan Pulp and Paper provides jobs and if it doesn’t then Alcan do, or Methanex. Hard jobs, with risks, but high pay. Hard jobs because that is how you define yourself, hard working, hard drinking. The women go for it, you tell yourself and pretty soon, the debts, the wife and kids, the mortgage is all yours and there you are, a wage slave to to factory system at the edge of the world - in Kitimat, population 8,131 at the last count 2016.

Of course most days your throat burns and your eyes water, but like the rest of the locals, you just joke about it and saying your crying money. The dead trees don’t matter much, after all the other half of the town earns its living clear-cutting trees for the Pulp Mill, a bit of acid rain is only a small price to pay. Then there's the LNG industry on the up with growing world demand.

Kitimat would have been one of the healthiest places to live in Canada, at one time. The first thing anyone will tell you is that they don’t want any strangers poking their noses into their lives, worrying about a bit of smoke, this is where the jobs are and no one wants to jeopardise this, the companies pay good and there’s medical. The environment is fine, people will tell you, the hills are just crawling with black bears, but the same isn’t true about grizzlies. Grizzlies need a lot of cover and they are shy of open spaces. Clear-cutters don’t like to leave corridors for the bears to travel in and the grizzlies are literally starving out there, their bones sticking out. But you can’t see them, unless they come raiding the garbage bins and then they are a nuisance. Each year a few more start to starve and they are forced to eat garbage and face being shot. In China they killed at the Tigers for their paws, in Canada could the same thing happen to the wildlife - out of neglect?

Funny thing though, you hear this more from the wives of Kitimat than the menfolk, but they can see their kids aren’t growing up healthy, like the kids you see on the brochures or Dawson’s Creek. Allegedly many grow up with asthma and other respiratory illnesses, other kids seem to have brittle bone disease and other skeletal problems, grown women and some of the men suddenly grow rashes that can’t be explained and makes lifting or even moving your neck painful. This isn’t just a few, all the schools report that more and more kids are failing to turn up for school, particularly in calm days when the smog builds up over the town. In October, flying over, you could follow the smog trails over the mountains for miles. (Many employees only work there for a short period (say three-four years) and thus any subsequent health problems that might occur from working in Kitimat are not reflected in the stats there.)

The real problems come from microscopic particulates designated PM10, a pollutant associated with heavy industry that penetrates the lung very deep and can’t be naturally filtered out. You can see the effects of this most clearly if you travel in Eastern Europe where unchecked heavy industry and a lack of regard for personal safety and free speech has left a world full of people old before their time, tilling crops in arid fields, having children with stunted growth and chronic lung problems. Allegedly Kitimat has one of the higher concentrates of PM 10 in B.C., the dead trees are a great signifier of what peoples' lungs could look like.

It makes interesting reading to discover that the EPA in the USA states that only spills into the environment of 5000 pounds of aluminium sulphate must be reported. (Must be convenient when you only have 4500 pounds to accidentally spill into the river, rather than store it. (It happens allegedly).

The allowable maximum concentrates of aluminium in the workplace air of 15 milligrammes per cubic meter of air during an 8 hour shift in a 40 hour week have been criticised as too high. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommend only 10 milligrammes per meter of air. With good reason as lung and bone problems are a key health hazard with workers at smelter plants. ‘Exposure to aluminium in the air may have respiratory problems, including coughing and asthma from breathing dust.’

Other sources cite aluminium absorbtion experiments using rabbits reveal delays in skeletal and neurological development.
‘Aluminium poisoning has also been linked to Alzheimer's disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder associated with dementia. Higher concentrations of aluminium have been found in brain tissue of patients dying of Alzheimer's disease. Occupational exposure also occurs in workers exposed to aluminium in the work place. Coughing, increased phlegm production and a sense of irritation are noted in this group of workers. Chronic inhalation of fine aluminium dust or vapors has resulted in fibrosis of the lung, asthma, dyspnea, cough and pneumothorax.’
Source: Science Officer at the National Poison Centre, University Sains Malaysia, Penang.

So you are thinking of buying a home in Kitimat? Wonder if the Real Estate particulars mention any of this. What will the resale value be if anyone ever finds out? Homes are fifty percent cheaper than Vancouver, so there are bargains to be had for sure. For a riposte to this piece see Kitimat Safe

Closer to home, think of the riverside homes and apartments by the Fraser River, nudging against the gates of the Scott Pulp and Paper Plant. Children play, adults drink Cafe Latte or gamble at the Casino at New Westminster, yet always in the background is the hiss of the mill operating 24 hours. The residents of New West and Kitimat may not know that the major gaseous emissions from these Mills are TRS (Total Reduced Sulphur, Oxides of Sulphur (SOx), Oxides of Nitrogen (NOx) and PM10 (Particulate matter smaller than 10um). Yet, as poisonous as these emissions are, there is no federal or provincial regulation for air emissions from pulp mills, nor indoor air quality, nor ambient air quality. Permits are given by the Ministry of the Environment which authorise mills to discharge contaminants into the air. There are guidelines for safe emissions, but these are NOT legally binding standards. (Emissions monitoring by the B.C. Ministry of the Environment occurs at monthly, quarterly and annual intervals).

Strolling around Rocky Point by the wide shallow inlet to the other side, one experiences a tightening of the throat. A glance across the inlet reveals Port Moody’s sulphur deposits, stored in the open at the dockside, looking all neat and bright yellow, you can’t miss it. In a light breeze you can taste it. Well raw sulphur can’t do much harm, alright apply water and air you get sulphuric acid and it is out in the open, but it is relatively inert (of course I’d like to see an environmental report on what happens to the wild life around there), but more importantly, what happens to the people who paid more than $500,000 for the luxury houses they built on the hill overlooking the sulphur deposit. Who is looking out for them? Do they not feel their throats constrict as mine does, three kilometres away? Do not their children suffer or have skin allergies? Has anyone done a cluster analysis in this region? Has anyone tested the fish?

Alright, industry has to go on, Vancouver has grown and houses and apartment buildings have started to appear when once factories and mills once stood. Traffic has built up and the town is a real city now with over 2 million people and the traffic to go with it (And watch out for PM 2.5 diesel particulates that comes from traffic congestion).

It is time that these figures, particularly for PM10, to be included in the property details when a home is up for sale or for rent. After all, you wouldn’t want your child to grow up with asthma or a bone disease. Yes this would definitely result in property prices going down in some areas, but there is an element of common sense here. If you buy next to a factory of any kind, you can expect emissions. (What kind of emissions? Well suspended particulates can include Carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulphide, lead, PM10, sulphur dioxide, TRS, zinc, chlorine and chlorine dioxide.)
This list should be published in the local papers monthly so the taxpayers can see what kind of hazard exists in their neighbourhood and I might add that the figures need to be checked by independent and honest (unbribable) monitors.

If you want to know more there is a book ‘Monitoring Pulp and Paper Mills in British Columbia - A Citizens’ Handbook ‘ISBN 0-9680431-1-9

No one is against industry, how would we exist if we all became librarians or civil servants, but I question the wisdom of industry and people living cheek by jowl, at least without some kind of warning label on the neighbourhood. Would the folks of Kitimat love their jobs so much if they knew it was likely that their children will be crippled or have alzheimers by the age of 40. Would anyone chose to live by a Pulp Mill if they could read the monthly emission report and understood it’s implications for their health. Would you really want to raise kids there? People do, but do they know the possible health problems?

According to a recent study done by World Health Organisation published in the Lancet (A UK Medical Journal) 6% of all deaths in Switzerland, France and Austria are caused by industrial fallout and PM10 and PM2.5 (traffic pollution) . The Friends of the Earth estimate that 19,000 deaths a year occur in the UK from industrial fallout and the cost of hospitalisation, medical care, lost jobs, broken families must total billions. (The UK Ministry of Health's own figures put it between 12,000 and 22,000)

The West cannot continue to hide this problem. It has to chose, industry has to change it’s ways. Developers cannot just build next to factories and walk away without posting the pollution figures for the neighbourhood. Canada and the USA must invest in safety and be open to scrutinity - the cost of not doing so will be paid by our children and they will not thank us if we ignore it and as for owning a Dodge Durango, they will think you were insane.

What your Realtor doesn’t want you to know in the UK

The Department of the Environment is involved in a ‘sick home’ register, investigating and listing homes near dangerous landfills linked to possible cancer causing pollutants. Now, using data from the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency and British Geological Society, they have compiled an audit of UK homes which reveals that 1.3 million homes are at risk of flooding, 444,000 homes are at risk of subsidence and another 100,000 from landslides - according to Sitescope, an environmental property risk company. At the moment in the UK property is valued according to taste and proximity to good jobs and good schools, but if the hazards of pollution and environmental hazards are taken into account, millions of properties could fall quite radically in value, billions of pounds of equity will be lost and many will find themselves in a massive negative equity situation, one that will only get worse as future buyers concentrate on ‘safer’ areas. An example of this is cited by those living near ICI’s Runcorn industrial plant at the village of Weston. Hexachlorobutadiene was discovered to be seeping into their homes from a disused quarry. (Which could cause fetal abnormalities).

From a place like Cornwall, which has possibly cancer causing Radon problems seeping into the stone built housing, to subsidence, which affects many parts of the UK, homes have been classified into most ‘at risk’ postcodes Out of the 8000 postcodes (zipcodes) nearly 300 are classified at ‘very high risk’.

There are 166,500 homes in the UK within a mile and a half of industrial sites or waste dumps that could cause cancer. More than 300 factory plants are releasing particulates, carbon monoxide, and other noxious fumes into the local atmosphere. There is now evidence linking cancer with power lines over or nearby housing (Particulates become electrically charged- and where there is a persistent wind - as in Cornwall, it can pose a risk when these particlualtes enter the lung. Many housing estates in the UK and in particular in Cornwall have huge power lines draped over them. The clusters of cancers in these areas cannot be a 'coincidence'. (The research on this is being surpressed by the BMA (British Medical Association) and the UK Government to limit liability.)

You can now log on to key websites to find out the hazards in the area you live in, or more importantly where to move to. This means that if you can, so can the insurance and mortgage companies. The consequences are huge. Some areas and whole estates, whole towns could face huge insurance cost rises, or worse, withdrawal of insurance for key problems such as risk of flooding, subsidence, or illness brought about by carcinogens from industrial fallout.

It is likely that a massive housing blacklist will develop and with it, labour mobility could also be affected. If you cannot raise money on your home or sell it, as many people are finding out is true, they may have to literally walk away from it and risk paying a mortgage for a home they can longer live in and has little or no value. This is the the 20th Century timebomb that is about to explode in the 21st. The old adage about an investment being as safe as houses no long holds. Your home may actually be the worst investment you ever made. (We haven't mentioned building new homes on flood plains.)

The UK in 2002 is experiencing the biggest property boom since 1988 and houses built on landfills and other dubious places are selling overnight at crazy prices. As of November 2002, property is almost a hundred percent higher than when I wrote this article in 2000. It has risen 25 percent this year. No one is asking about good schools or low crime figures, they just want in on a property frenzy, scared to be left behind. When it comes time to selling in a future tight market, that's when you discover that air quality or garbage collection is an issue.

For example: Take an area of London with the fastest rising prices; Hackney. It has the second lowest passes at GCSE in schools at 32%, 30 percent of the local population reported they they or a member of their family had been mugged in the last year. In Lewisham, another fast price rising area, there were 824 missed garbage collections, which wasn't as bad as Redbrige with 4929 missed collections. Try selling your home when the streets are choked with litter. (For balance, the richest area of London, Westminster had 1892 missed collections and an incredible rise in muggings - mostly kids stealing mobile phones from tourists.).
Sources Local Authority Performance Indicators 2000-1

*Now think of how you can get rich by buying in a low emission neighbourhood. It's only a matter of time before this catches on and you'll be sitting pretty.

Who knows what it is like to have your stomach pumped from capsizing in a polluted river. Who grew up beside the heavily industrialised River Humber which has the highest asthma problem for children in the UK. Smog is Good Business... "Never mind the genepool, just look at that sunset won't you."

Readers Responses
"Aaron Smithanik" <>
In response to Kitimat article
My name is Aaron and I live in Terrace, BC, about 60 km's from Kitimat. After reading the article written about Kitimat, I decided that because of it's extreme bias that I would make a response. This is not intended to be malicious or anything of the sort.
It is unfair to label the employees of these companies as hard-working, hard-drinking, Canadians through and through. I know many employees who work for Alcan Kitimat Works and most of them are skilled tradesmen, not the thoughtless slobs you make them out to be.
I myself am a 19 year old man who is looking for work at one of these "Big three" companies. They provide a good benefit package and steady work-something that is hard to find. I don't drink so how can you say these malicious things and give seedy ideas about the employees of these companies? Anyways, I just thought I would state the facts.
Sincerely, Aaron.

Anne Sluyter says Kitimat is a healthier place to live than Vancouver
Feb 2003
Readers Response
Nov 2002

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