SPECIAL REPORT

LIVING WITH TOXIC WASTE

ANN FINLAYSON May 26 1986
SPECIAL REPORT

LIVING WITH TOXIC WASTE

ANN FINLAYSON May 26 1986

LIVING WITH TOXIC WASTE

SPECIAL REPORT

Last August an industrial accident at a Dow Chemical Canada Inc. plant near Sarnia, Ont., created what scientists described as a toxic “blob” on the St. Clair River bottom. Three months later Indian leader George Erasmus visited the Walpole Island reserve, located at the mouth of the river about 48 km downstream from the spill site. Waiting for him were elementary school teachers who had asked their students to list the improvements that they wanted to see on

the island where residents imported drinking water in plastic bottles. In response, two children in the fishing and hunting community of 1,600 Potawatomi, Ojibwa and Ottawa Indians suggested that a Burger King restaurant and a Holiday Inn be built on the island. But Jana Jacobs, the nine-yearold daughter of band research director Dean Jacobs, had a more pointed request: she simply asked for clean, safe water. Explained the fourth-grader: “We bring water in because the chemicals hurt us.”

Malignant: A rapidly expanding

body of evidence confirms what Walpole Island residents know from personal experience: that many chemicals commonly used in industry are harmful. But it is more difficult to predict the long-term consequences of exposure to toxic wastes. For one thing, researchers have established that PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls used for de-

cades as coolants in electrical transformers) cause skin disorders, abnormal pigmentation and an aboveaverage incidence of malignant tumors, stillbirths and birth defects. And carbon tetrachloride, a compound used in fumigants, solvents and insecticides, is known to cause central nervous system depression, mental confusion and polyneuritis, a disease of the nerve ends. As well, prolonged exposure to trichloroethylene, used as a dry-cleaning solvent, can lead to respi-

ratory and cardiac arrest, paralysis and eye problems. And toxic wastes can also inflict emotional and mental strain on entire communities.

Fears: Thousands of Canadians who live or work near known toxic hazards—chemical dump sites, polluted waterways and radioactive-waste sites —endure psychological disturbances and social disorientation because of their dangerous surroundings. And several U.S. studies, including an influential 1982 report prepared by New York State University sociologist Adeline Levine, have shown that children who live near toxic sites worry about the future, their own health and their families’ well-being. Psychologists who worked with children living near Niagara Falls, N.Y.’s notorious Love Canal landfill site—a toxic dump which has been the source of public concern for nearly a decade—found that many of them were obsessed with fears of pre-

mature death. Even very young children living nearby said that they had nightmares about toxins oozing from their bodies.

Adults, particularly those who lack the means to move from neighborhoods near the sites and elderly residents who have strong emotional ties to their homes, are equally vulnerable. Recent U.S. studies show that the stress and uncertainty generated by living near poisonous wastes can lead to marital friction, suicide, child

abuse, feelings of guilt, powerlessness—and to actual physical illness unrelated to the chemical hazards themselves. Last year in Toronto, environmental researcher Urmas Madisso prepared a synopsis of the latest research on the social and psychological effects of exposure to hazardous substances for the Inland Waters Directorate, a branch of the federal environment ministry. Madisso’s conclusion: “The evidence is overwhelming. Living near one of these sites, however dangerous it is in reality, can be traumatic, a severe shock to the psyche.” Stunned: Still, frightened residents often find it difficult to gauge the extent of the danger they face as they try to sort out contradictory and confusing opinions from doctors, scientists, government officials and environmental authorities. Seventy-yearold Olive Cannon says that she was stunned last July when she learned

that a municipal landfill site across the street from her home in the working-class Montreal suburb of LaSalle contained more than 130,000 cubic

I yards of toxic wastes, including phenol, benzene and PCBs, which had been stored there for more than 25 years. After Quebec environment officials told her that she would have to live elsewhere until they had removed the waste materials, Cannon was upset by the thought of leaving her home. But before it was necessary for her to move, the Liberals won the December provincial election and suspended the cleanup. Said Cannon: “Now we don’t hear anything. Everything is back to normal and we’re just sitting here, living on fear.”

Vacant: Many of her neighbors reacted quickly when they first heard about the dump and now Cannon looks out on a street of vacant houses. She has lived there for 14 years, her 46year-old daughter,

Claire, lives next door and Claire’s two children often visit and run errands in a neighborhood where she once felt completely at ease. Said Cannon: “It’s a terrible, terrible thing. I liked living here.

Now we just don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Threat: Five of the eight homeowners whose duplexes were built on the contaminated dump site have left. Said William Wilkinson, a 55-year-old carpet installation contractor who moved to a street about IV2 miles from the dump site: “I’m glad I’m gone. Property values have dropped and now I don’t cough like I used to. The goverment inspectors who tested our house told us it was safe, but for some reason I coughed a lot more there.”

But for many residents who leave their homes because of a toxic pollution threat, the psychological and financial toll exacted by a forced relocation often outweigh the benefits. Researchers who have studied the reactions of residents living near Love

Canal found that those who were forced to move often suffered severe disorientation and depression. Some also had an assortment of stress-related medical problems including anxiety attacks, migraine headaches and nervous disorders.

Still, the psychological pressure on those who chose to remain in an area threatened by contamination is equally severe. In Wallaceburg, Ont., 40 km downstream from Sarnia, many residents say that they are increasingly

reluctant to drink water taken from the St. Clair River. And they add that they are not reassured by provincial government claims that the water is being properly treated and the cleanup is continuing. Said dentist Douglas Steen, founder of the area’s Clean Water Committee: “These incidents have a subtle psychological effect. We just can’t trust the water. Every time we turn the tap on, we wonder what has been spilled into the river today.” Added Barbara Perkin, a nurse who is six months pregnant with her third child: “Although there is no proven link between cancer and toxic waste, I know

that cancer rates are rising here. I’m not obsessed because of that, but I do think about it a lot.”

And in the United States, researchers into one of the worst nuclear power accidents in history—a near-meltdown in a reactor at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pa., in 1979—reported that thousands of residents living near the plant were anxious and frightened afterward. Some people in the area said that they experienced feelings of \ stress two years after the accident despite assurances from government officials that the danger had passed. A survey of 600 patients of a doctor whose practice was within three kilometres of the malfunctioning reactor showed that many of them reported anxiety-related symptoms. Those included nausea, vomiting, insomnia and nightmares. The knowledge that radiation poisoning can cause similar symptoms further unsettled many of the patients seeking medical attention.

Trap: More difficult to measure are the subtle social disruptions in communities threatened by toxic wastes. At Love Canal, observers noted an increase in family tensions as wives and mothers become involved in the protest against the dump site and assumed leadership roles in citizens’ ; groups. For one thing, their husbands sometimes saw their wives’ growing involvement as a threat to their family authority. As well, researchers discovered that many women in affected areas are reluctant to become pregnant, fearing that they will suffer miscarriages or that newborn infants will be more likely to die or have genetic abnormalities or such diseases as cancer. Many men in affected areas suffered a loss of self-esteem when they had to move to new jobs and homes. Still others felt guilty for remaining in the neighborhood despite family pressure to move elsewhere. One resident described his house as a hated trap which he could not afford to give up.

Researcher Madisso said that he found that residents who have faced a toxic threat to their homes or health often experience a profound loss of confidence in society’s ability to combat pollution. Said Madisso: “They no longer feel that it is possible to protect themselves and their families or to escape the constant threat of manmade environmental catastrophe.” As a result, he says that the psychic scars inflicted on those who live near a malfunctioning nuclear reactor or a lethal cache of industrial poison may prove to be one of the least known but most devastating effects of toxic waste.

ANN FINLAYSON

KATHRYN HARLEY

DAN BURKE

SHERRI AIKENHEAD