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'Shut right down until the problem is fixed': Report confirms Chemical Valley air concerns

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A newly released report confirms concerning levels of chemicals in the air near Sarnia's Chemical Valley, with the heaviest concentrations on a nearby First Nation territory.

It's what Aamjiwnaang First Nation members have been fearing for decades; the air they breathe could be killing them.

Aamjiwnaang environmental activist Ada Lockridge told CTV News on Thursday that it has to stop, "Shut right down until the problem is fixed. That's what they should be doing, and quit adding to the mixture in the air until they know what's going on."

Lockridge was on hand as results of the Sarnia Area Environmental Health Project were released by the Ministry of the Environment officials.

It included an analysis that found concerning levels of benzene on the northern edge of Aamjiwnaang and in south Sarnia. Both sit adjacent to Chemical Valley industries.

Glenn Ferguson was part of the presentation, which was also streamed online, "In certain parts of the study area we observed that were would be an elevated airborne concentrations of benzene that can result in an increased risk of blood cancer, specifically leukemia, that's above acceptable levels."

Ferguson is an environmental health scientist with the firm Intrinsik, one of three consulting firms that worked with area First Nations, the Ministry of the Environment, and Lambton Public Health, among others.

He said the Ontario benchmark for identifying benzene risk is one additional incidence of cancer per one million people, "We are above that level and in some cases. Specifically in those areas we identified, significantly above."

A new report confirms levels of benzene that could lead to increased cases of blood cancers, including leukaemia. (Source: cleanairsarniaandarea.com)

Thirty-seven other chemicals used in local industries were identified for having potential risk, but only one other concerning emission was highlighted, sulfur dioxide.

Sulfur dioxide emissions are mostly linked to what is called flaring, burning off excess flammable gases. Ministry officials say large releases can also occur during power outages.

Sulfur dioxide releases are of most concern to those with asthma or other respiratory illnesses.

Lockridge feels the analysis doesn’t fully address the cumulative effects of various chemicals in the air, "There's a whole lot of other chemicals out there floating around and once they mix together, what is it? And what harm is that going to do to you now?"

Environment Ministry officials believe this report will be a trigger for regulatory and enforcement improvement.

Rachel Melzer is the human toxicology team lead for the Ministry of the Environment, "We're bringing that information back to the ministry to take action on; and you, likely, will hold the ministry’s feet to the fire, too."

The data analyzed covered a period from 2015 to 2019. It included advanced modelling by industry experts, analysis of air quality monitoring stations throughout the region and industry reporting on chemicals used.

Melzer told the meeting that high levels of benzene continue to enter the air, with one of the largest releases on record happening earlier this year.

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