sur la santé
humaine et

au Canada
où les deux sont à bon

Elizabeth May,
activiste réputée
en matière
offre ses
commentaires sur
quelques sujets
reliés à la santé
humaine et à
l’environnement au
Canada Atlantique.

May critique la
condition de l’eau
publique, le plus
grand site toxique
du Canada
(Sydney Tar
Ponds), ainsi que
ce que le
gouvernement fait
à propos de ces

Elle déclare que la
santé au Canada
Atlantique est une
question de culture
et d’éthique.
"C’est un enjeu












Coke Ovens

(photo: Joint
Action Group








"Human Health and the Environment:

Welcome to Atlantic Canada,
where both are cheap"

   Elizabeth May
   Sierra Club of Canada, Executive Director
Chair of Women’s Health and the Environment, Dalhousie University
   August 2000


inks between our health and the environment are increasingly being recognized.  Water in Walkerton, Ontario has killed at least six people, while air pollution in Ontario kills 1800 people prematurely every year. Atlantic Canadians are not immune. The highest rate of childhood asthma in Canada is in Prince Edward Island, with Nova Scotia a close second. No one knows why. Theories range from long range transport of air pollutants from the industrial zones to the west of us, to higher rates of smoking in the home, to pesticide applications impacting on the immune system. 

(photo: Joint Action Group website)


Sydney Tar Ponds


Our water is no safer than Ontario’s. 
Water testing was downloaded to municipalities two years ago in Nova Scotia; industrial hog farms have moved into New Brunswick and are pressing into Cumberland County in Nova Scotia; and many small communities already have seriously high levels of the carcinogen trihalomethane in their water. This is thanks to chlorinating water that is already contaminated with organic material, decaying leaves etc. Trihalomethane, according to Health Canada, causes increased risks of cancer, birth defects and miscarriages. This problem is one with dead-easy solutions. All it takes is a small investment to avoid turning municipal water treatment plants into cancer-causing additive factories.

Unfortunately our public health officials seem more interested in issuing bland reassurances than in demanding change. I think it's a cultural and ethical problem, of which the most prominent example is the Sydney Tar Ponds.

Now, I cannot tell you exactly how many people have died because of that damned steel mill (and I use the word "damned" in its precise and Biblical meaning), but I would estimate that, conservatively, the pollution in Sydney has killed thousands of people. The toxic ooze (700,000 tons in an open estuary into Sydney Harbour and the 125 acres upstream used to bake coal into coke) continues to threaten the health of Sydney residents. The cancer rate is higher there than anywhere else in Canada, the birth defect rate is higher than the rest of Nova Scotia -- but so is the occurrence of Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and mental illness. Not everyone who dies of cancer in Sydney dies because they live near Canada's largest toxic waste site, but undoubtedly, the fact that people in Sydney die earlier and have higher cancer rates than even those people living in other industrialized Cape Breton communities, like Glace Bay and New Waterford, makes the government's ritual response to health studies (that we must focus on "lifestyle") more than obscene.

It has been decades since the government knew that pollution in Sydney was killing people. Nothing was done. Nothing has been done. They just finished building an elementary school for over 500 students; a brand new building which, in our current style, makes a school look like a prison. It's on the bank above the tar ponds. Another generation of kids will be conceived, born and develop in a place saturated with toxic substances. Parents in Sydney care. Moms break down and weep with frustration. God knows, I wrote most of my sections of Frederick Street through angry tears. So did Maude write her chapters while weeping.* But we got to leave after our weeks of interviews.

(photo: Tar Ponds Project)

Toxic Sludge

Governments are just used to treating Cape Breton, and indeed Atlantic Canada, as some sort of basket case. Cod all gone? Well, you know those Newfs, couldn't be the draggers. Westray blow up? Well, you can't expect us to compensate families --- even though Mulroney gave his buddies money from federal coffers to build the damned thing (note appropriate usage). People dying in Sydney? Oh, you know those Cape Bretoners. Too much smoking and drinking and why don't they move to Toronto anyway?

Health in Atlantic Canada is an ethical question. It's a moral issue. The trade-off made (one hundred years ago) between human health and life to support industry was a Faustian bargain. Summed up as "No smoke, no baloney" by a mill manager, Cape Bretoners were told for decades that the price of a paycheck was pollution. No one signed this bargain in blood. It's a bad equation for the economy as well as for health and it's time we named it for what it is -- not a "trade-off" but murder. We must say clearly we will not accept less than achieving our full potential as truly healthy human beings.


(left to right)

Elizabeth May
Maude Barlow



* Elizabeth May is the co-author with friend Maude Barlow of "Frederick Street: Life and Death on Canada's Love Canal" published by Harper Collins and available in bookstores everywhere.