The editorial answers you | “Unacceptable” health risks in Rouyn-Noranda

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Posted at 11:00

Philip Mercury

Philip Mercury
The print

Public health reportedly said that emissions from the Horne foundry in Rouyn-Noranda pose a minimal risk to the health of the people living in that region. What is a small risk and is it really worth fighting all those small risks that surround us?

Hugues Beauregard

With all that has been said, there is indeed a lot of confusion about the risks posed by the discharges from the Horne foundry in Rouyn-Noranda.

To answer your question clearly, the current risks are far from “minimal”.

Both the Department of Public Health of Abitibi-Témiscamingue and the National Institute of Public Health of Quebec (INSPQ) confirm that they have never used this adjective.

Quebec’s national director of public health himself, Luc Boileau, said last summer that maintaining current emissions “is not acceptable.”

In reality it was François Legault who spoke of “minimal risk”, but the Prime Minister did not speak of the current risk. Rather, he was referring to a scenario in which the emissions of the Horne Smelter would be reduced to a concentration of arsenic in the air of 15 nanograms per cubic meter (ng / m3) at the so-called “legal” measuring station, located on the edge of the Notre-Dame district.

For now, the current agreement signed between the government and the company allows for a concentration of up to 100 ng / m23 in this position. From 2005 to 2018 the average was 165 ng / m23.

The standard for arsenic that applies to the entire province is however much lower, at 3 ng / m23.

By examining the health risks to citizens, we understand to what extent allowing a company to issue dozens of times the rule allowed on the doorstep of a residential neighborhood is a reckless public health experiment.

Last July, INSPQ assessed the cancer risks associated with arsenic and cadmium in Rouyn-Noranda. The researchers took into account the risk of inhaling these airborne contaminants, but also of ingesting them due to the contaminated dust.1

They considered a person who will live in Rouyn-Noranda for 70 years, from 1991 to 2060, with different emission scenarios for the future.

A risk considered negligible is 1 case of cancer per million inhabitants.

In a scenario where nothing is done to reduce emissions, the risk reaches 61 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the entire city, or 610 times higher than the negligible risk. For the inhabitants of the Notre-Dame neighborhood that borders the Foundry, it rises to 87 crates per 100,000 inhabitants.

For the INSPQ, any risk that exceeds 10 cases per 100,000 inhabitants is considered “unacceptable”.

Given the city’s population, this would translate into about 14 additional cancer cases over 70 years in Rouyn-Noranda. The figure may seem low, but it comes from the city’s low population. Public health experts warn that care must be taken not to conclude that small populations may be exposed to higher levels of pollution because there are fewer sick people in absolute numbers.

Tumors are not the only risks posed by contaminants emitted by the Foundry. The presence of arsenic and lead in the soil is particularly considered by the INSPQ to be “worrying” for the development of young children, especially those aged 6 months to 4 years.2

According to the researchers, this exposure could lead to a decline in children’s IQs. It’s not about panicking. Scientists calculate that current exposure would be associated with a decline generally of less than one IQ point, although “we cannot rule out effects beyond this value,” writes the INSPQ.

On an individual level, a drop in an IQ point is negligible. But on a demographic scale, it can lead to observable effects. The percentage of children considered to have a low IQ, for example, will be slightly higher.

In general, the INSPQ concludes that “the current and historically high concentrations and the resulting risks were deemed unacceptable according to the guidelines followed on public health” in Rouyn-Noranda, hence the negotiation with the company to lower emissions.

A scenario in which the Foundry would be able to rapidly reduce its emissions to reach a concentration of 15 ng / m3 for arsenic and therefore possibly meet the standard of 3 ng / m3, would significantly reduce the risks. Standards for other metals should also be met.

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