Risk communication and public response to industrial chemical contamination in Sydney, Nova Scotia: a case study.

Author:Rainham, Daniel
Position::International Perspectives


Chemical contamination and toxic waste resulting from industrial processes figure prominently on a growing list of health hazards faced by communities in Canada. Although research with attention to such health hazards is on the rise, the understanding of individual, local, and community responses to such hazards is limited. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada's most contaminated community. Using a constructivist approach, this paper examines the array of claims and responses made to widespread chemical contamination and how those responses have influenced the community to mobilize in reaction to perceived health impacts.

The town of Sydney located on the northern tip of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is a culturally rich but economically poor and government-dependent community. The physical geography of the Sydney area boasts rich deposits of coal and iron ore, and the town's proximity to the sea has enabled Sydney's citizens to supplement their incomes from an abundant and resilient fishery. Sydney's shape is influenced by a large tidal estuary that has historically been used as a launch site for fishing vessels, an ocean playground for adjacent residents, and, more recently, a dump for the waste from steel-making processes (Figure 1). With a current population of approximately 26,000, Sydney is Nova Scotia's third largest city ("Sydney: The History" 2000).

Contamination in the Making

Since the beginning of the last century, Sydney has flourished as the economic base of northern Nova Scotia. Large-scale mining and processing of coal in and around the Sydney area occurred most substantially after the arrival of the Dominion Coal and Steel Company in 1899 (Earle, 1991). Large groups of immigrants settled in the Sydney area seeking opportunity and employment, and helped to produce nearly half of all the steel made in Canada in 1921. At the height of production in the 1940s, the steel plant and its associated operations had acquired much of the land situated next to the estuary and many workers and residents built houses close to the operations.

In the 1960s, after many successful years of production and profitability, the Dominion Steel Company started to suffer, mainly as a result of weak world steel markets. Periods of decline in demand for steel made Sydney's residents fully aware of the town's economic dependence. This awareness of susceptibility gave rise to worker demands for increased stability and assurance of sustainable employment and was reinforced by disgruntlement among coal mine workers who found working conditions to be particularly unacceptable. Nevertheless, Sydney residents generally accepted the side effects of steel making and mining as an aspect of prosperous industrialization (Lavigne, 1987). Residents of Sydney were willing to accept industry and the potential degradation of their environment and health for perceived economic returns.

The scientific community was first alerted to Sydney and the area around the estuary in the early 1980s after a succession of resident complaints about noxious fumes and respiratory difficulties. A series of federal and provincial studies revealed the presence of carcinogens, including

some species of poly-cyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) (Environment Canada, 1988). A subsequent decision by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to close the lobster fishery in 1981 because of elevated PAH levels did nothing to alleviate community fears. It is currently estimated that the tar ponds site contains 700,000 metric tons of PAH-filled tar, about 50,000 metric tons of which is heavily laced with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) (Gjertsen, 1997). The emergence of the Sydney tar ponds as an extreme example of environmental contamination is as much a by-product of Cape Breton's economic history as a by-product of manufacturing steel and mining for coal.

From Contamination to Mobilization

In contrast to many instances of environmental contamination in which a community may have little warning about the existence of an environmental contaminant, the short-term and chronic health effects of industrial chemical exposures have been an issue in Sydney since mining and steel production began in the 19th century (Havlock, 1973). Concerns about lowered respiratory function among both miners and steel factory workers and the downplaying of mine disasters have played an important role in emphasizing the dangers of the industry to local residents. In addition, decades of relentless economic recession and unemployment have hindered growth and socioeconomic development in the region (Pennock, 1996).

In the mid-1980s, chronic environmental contamination in Sydney developed into a public-health issue. Rumors and first-hand accounts of friends and family dying from cancer, media stories about residents who border the old steel mill, and a federal-provincial agreement to clean up the area did much to alert the town, the province, and the rest of Canada to the issue. The most recent public-opinion poll confirms that a broad interest in the cleanup still exists today and that demands for investigations into human health effects from the tar ponds contamination remain unwavering (Marketing Research Council, 1998).

In an attempt to understand the impact of chronic environmental contamination at the community level, this paper explores the multiple factors that influence community responses and methods of dealing with the perceived problem, also known as community mobilization. Using interpretations derived from epidemiological philosophies of causality, the culture of risk perception and management, and community-based environmental decision making, this paper seeks to explore the factors mediating the process of response to widespread environmental contamination in a small community.

The focus of this discussion is primarily on the emergence and construction of the Sydney community, their elected representatives at both the federal and provincial levels, and the media. The paper will also illustrate ways in which social actors who have a political or economic stake in the social response to calls for environmental remediation attempt to shift the perception of environmental contamination as a major public-health concern to a perception of it as an economic opportunity

Theoretical Context

Social constructionism provides a useful conceptual framework for this discussion. Using a construction agenda, Best (1987) suggests that claims--whether they are scientific or something else--should be analyzed contextually and in terms of the claims themselves, the claims makers, and the claims-making process. Constructivist research often reveals that what appears to be most obvious or intuitive is nevertheless false. This approach is certainly pertinent to research on the impacts that the social visibility of environmental contamination has on local community mobilization in Sydney, Nova Scotia.

Community mobilization resulting from environmental hazards is a nonlinear and relatively dynamic process (Edelstein, 1988). The process includes initial reaction, thoughts, and feelings about the contamination (interpretations) and actions taken to alleviate fears and to correct environmental quality (actions). Cognitive responses incorporate perception of the hazard (possible risk identification) and alteration of emotional responses to the negative stimulus. For example, a person may change the way he or she thinks about a situation in order to feel better about it or to justify its existence (Portney, 1991). Initial responses and subsequent actions are, however, mediated by the influences of contaminant literacy (that is, how much those potentially affected know about the contaminant), the claims made by stakeholders who are potentially involved or are involved in the issue, and perceptions of risk (Schnaiberg, 1980). Subsequent actions include pressure for dynamic changes in the situation, such as mobili zation, to reduce the impacts of adverse outcomes.

Adverse effects on well-being and health, and subsequently on both cognitive and behavioral responses, tend to interact with reconciling factors related to the potentially affected population and mediating influences. These factors may include characteristics such as education, current health status, outlook on individual health, occupation, and length of residence (Cohen, Evans, Stokols, & Krantz, 1986). Characteristics of the environmental contaminant, such as the duration of threat, observability, and claims of risk...

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