For 3,500 residents of the east-end Montreal suburb of St-Basile-le-Grand, the news was a mixed blessing. They had already spent more than a week in school gyms, hotels or with friends after their homes were blanketed by dense clouds of smoke from a warehouse fire that burned 19,800 gallons of oil containing the toxic chemical PCB. Although initial results of air, water and soil sampling showed an almost undetectable level of
PCBs, the Quebec government told the people that they might not be allowed to return to their homes for another week until the World Health Organization and the federal health department could confirm that there was no danger. Said Quebec Environment Minister Clifford Lincoln: “We are proceeding cautiously because the experts say the validation is the way to go to make sure the public is secure and confident.”
However, neither that qualified reassurance—nor the arrest last week on arson charges of 27-year-old laborer Alain Chapleau—resolved questions about the long-term effects of exposure to PCBs. The incident caused fed-
eral and provincial politicians and bureaucrats to update inventory lists on approximately 1,600 PCB storage sites across the country, and to debate who has the jurisdiction to regulate those sites. Reports of potential new methods of destroying PCBs only added to the frustration that many felt over the cancer-causing chemicals remaining in their midst.
PCBs were introduced into Canada in 1929 and were used as a fire re-
tardant in electrical equipment and as a stabilizing ingredient in everything from printer’s ink to asphalt. But their useful qualities—they are almost indestructible—now make safe disposal extremely difficult. Studies in the 1970s linked the chemical to liver cancer in laboratory animals and severe skin rashes in humans. That, in turn, led the federal government in 1977 to restrict all PCB use except for existing sealed electrical equipment such as transformers.
Blood tests taken in Charles Lemoyne Hospital after the St-Basile fire indicated that nine per cent of residents had toxins in their livers, an amount officials said would be normal
under any circumstances. Thirty per cent of the firefighters and 25 per cent of the policemen, however, had toxins in their livers.
Although no new PCBs are being produced, the problem has not been eliminated. According to Victor Buxton, chief of the chemical controls division of Environment Canada, about 40,000 tons of PCBs were imported from the United States—it was never manufactured in Canada—between 1929 and 1977. Environment Canada, which started keeping an inventory 11 years ago, now can account for 25,000 tons, either in waste storage or in operating equipment. Said Buxton: “That means we’ve lost track of 15,000 tons.”
He said that he believes there are approximately 1,600 places across Canada containing PCB-contaminated mineral oil, old electrical equipment and rags used to mop up spills. The single largest concentration of sites, according to David Crump, manager of Environment Ontario’s special wastes section, is in Ontario, where 960 are registered.
A week after the St-Basile fire, the Quebec cabinet approved strict new regulations governing inspection and storage of PCBs. The province will hire 30 new inspectors to inspect all sites by the end of November. The maximum fine for violations was increased to $1 million from $50,000. Historically, the federal government has had no authority over licensed PCB storage sites and instead issued guidelines that the provinces administered. But last week, federal Environment Minister Thomas McMillan said that “if any site does not meet national standards, the federal government will swoop in,” although he did not give details.
Researchers for both the National Research Council and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. have announced that they had alternative methods for making PCBs harmless. The NRC developed and patented a complicated process that reduces PCBs to a chemical that can be safely burned. The AECL method involves converting PCBs into three harmless byproducts using radiation. But neither method has received regulatory approval.
For residents of St-Basile, the main concern is the uncertainty of PCBs’ longterm effects. Gilles Trudeau, 39, along with his wife Francine, 33, and daughter Jacinthe, 8, left their home not far from the fire before being ordered to do so. He said: “I’m not worried about my own health, but I worry about what it might do to children years from now.” It was a worry that most St-Basile residents shared with Trudeau.
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