Maybe Seals Caused the Arsenic

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Let's not be hasty.

Just because the Sydney Steel coke ovens dumped more than 700,000 tonnes of arsenic-laden sludge into Sydney Harbour over the last hundred years, there's no scientific proof this played any part in the unsafe levels of arsenic showing up in area children.

Just because the steel plant and the coke ovens showered adjacent neighbourhoods with additional thousands of tonnes of cancer-causing chemicals every year for a century is no reason to think this has anything whatever to do with Sydney residents having the highest cancer rates in Canada.

Just because toxic slag from the steel plant was used as fill for residential construction in surrounding neighbourhoods for decades is no cause for leaping to wild conclusions about possible ill-effects on public health.

Just because federal and provincial health inspectors have checked residents for only two of the twenty-odd notorious carcinogens Sysco spewed into the air and groundwater for the last hundred years, and just because their tests come up positive only if exposure occurred within the last seventy-two hours, is no reason to suspect public health and safety are not uppermost in their minds.

Just because inspectors didn't bother to test soil samples in Sydney's middle-class North End, far closer to the tar ponds than Whitney Pier, is no reason to think they were trying to confine the problem to the poor, marginalized neighbourhoods of the Pier.

Just because the Nova Scotia Department of the Environment let Sobey's and its affiliate, Empire Theatres, build a supermarket and a theatre complex on filled-in sections of the tar ponds estuary doesn't mean they weren't being vigilant.

People have been quick to ridicule provincial health minister Jamie Muir for insisting that dangerous levels of arsenic found in five Sydney children "may have absolutely nothing to do with the tar ponds."

Muir is a minister of the Crown. He has certain responsibilities. He can't go running off half-cocked the first time some radical environmentalist dreams up a cockamamie theory that the worst industrial waste site in Canada - with thirty-five times more pollution than the Love Canal - is harming the people living in its midst.

Oh, sure. Bring out the pregnant mothers. Parade the tainted toddlers before the cameras. Go for the cheap shot. Tug on the heartstrings.

As Muir was quite right to point out, some of the poisoned babies live more than a kilometre from the tar ponds. A kilometre! That's a thousand metres away - almost a three-minute walk!

Muir's government was elected on a solemn promise not to spend any money in Cape Breton. He can't start writing cheques, moving people hither and yon, the first time someone has a beef about yellow cancer-causing goo seeping into their basements from a civil service steel mill.

What's he supposed to do? Move everyone in the whole Cape Breton Regional Municipality into Point Pleasant Park? Who's going to pay for that? Not those good-for-nothing steelworkers or coal miners, that's for sure.

This province is practically bankrupt. The worst thing Muir could do would be to act precipitously and move families before he has all the facts about what's poisoning their babies.

At this point, the popular notion that the coke ovens and the tar ponds are affecting public health is nothing more than a theory. Documents obtained under the Access to Inanity Act show Muir's department is actively exploring several other possibilities:

The Bruno Marcocchio-Mafia Connection
Investigators suspect Bruno Marcocchio may only be posing as a mild-mannered environmentalist truly concerned about pollution. He may actually be fronting for a Sicilian drug cartel anxious to gain control of the Sysco piers, whose heavy lift cranes would be ideal for importing tonnes of drugs into North America. RCMP labs are checking to see whether baby food in Sydney supermarkets was salted with arsenic to sow panic.

The Seal Theory
Federal authorities banned lobster fishing in Sydney Harbour twenty-five years ago. (They may be slow to protect babies, but when lobsters are threatened, bureaucrats act decisively.) Cod eat lobster larvae. Seals eat tonnes upon tonnes of cod, and they are known to defecate right in the water. Arsenic and other pollutants could be working their way up the food chain in this insidious manner. Children swimming and even playing along the water's edge could be exposed though their skin. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is weighing the merits of a seal cull to protect the children of Whitney Pier - but fearful of a backlash from animal rights groups.

The Blowing Smoke Theory
Second-hand smoke is known to contain arsenic. The provincial cabinet occasionally meets in the provincial building on Prince Street, less than a kilometre from where some of the poisoned children live! Coincidence? Investigators think not, especially in light of cabinet's recent performance. They suspect the youngsters may have been exposed to fumes from whatever Muir and cabinet colleague Jane Purves have been smoking.

To find the real culprit will require more testing. To act before all the facts are known would be to put political expediency ahead of science.

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