A review of the health effects of cement plants by Public Health Ontario (PHO) has found while cement production does create unhealthy emissions, no study has proven a causal relationship between living near a plant and developing cancer.
Public Health Ontario completed a review of the health effects of cement plants after a request from the Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU). The head of environmental and occupational health for Public Health Ontario, Dr. Ray Copes, says what’s important isn’t focusing on one source of pollution, but ensuring overall levels of pollution are kept down.
The EOHU isn’t supporting or opposing a cement plant in L’Orignal, said Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, medical officer of health for the organization. But, he said, he expects emissions from any plant would be controlled and monitored. “It’s not hard to say that air pollution is bad for you,” he said. “Limiting it satisfactorily is going to limit the issue.” Roumeliotis says he “would have faith” in the Ministry of Environment, and the EOHU would monitor the situation if a cement plant were to go ahead.
There have not been many studies into what effect cement plants have on the health of people living nearby, said Copes. The PHO review included studies done in the past 20 years and screened out articles from outside North America and Europe as well as studies dealing with the health of cement plant employees. Fifteen articles were ultimately included. The lack of specific studies about cement plants isn’t surprising, said Copes – he said a better way of studying air pollution is to focus on levels on air pollution in a particular place, not individual sources of pollutants.
“If we take a look at some of the pollutants that come out of cement plants, and also a great many other sources in our community, we come up with things like oxides of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter,” said Copes. The best way to study air pollution is to look at the “overall concentrations” of those pollutants in a place, he said.
Dr. Paul Roumeliotis of the EOHU said he was initially asked about the effect of a cement plant on cancer rates. The organization first looked at existing cancer rates in the area, and found the EOHU area does not have higher rates compared with the rest of Ontario. Then he approached Public Health Ontario, looking to find out if a cement plant could be linked with higher cancer rates.
The PHO review included studies which looked at the effects of cement plants on cancer rates. One study, which has been cited by Action Champlain, looked at communities in Spain near cement, lime, plaster, and magnesium oxide facilities between 1997 and 2006. The researchers found a higher risk of dying from cancer for people living within five kilometers of the facilities, but didn’t consider occupational hazards or whether or not people smoked cigarettes, according to PHO’s review. Another study, also from Spain, looked at 700 lung cancer patients and concluded living near metal industries, cement plants and shipyards is a risk factor for the cancer.
The PHO review says none of the studies reviewed could establish a causal link between living near a cement plant and developing cancer. “When you go into the literature, and you’re looking at cement plants specifically, you will find very little to link them specifically to cancer,” said Copes. However, it’s not the same story for air pollution itself – air pollution “very clearly is carcinogenic,” he said. Copes said international studies have shown a “small but appreciable increase in cancer risks associated with long-term increases in levels of key pollutants.” Those carcinogenic pollutants are emitted by “burning darn near any kind of carbon-based material,” said Copes – so, cement plants are one culprit among many.
Copes said he cannot say a cement plant in L’Orignal would create absolutely no risk to health, because in his opinion any level of air pollution is a problem: “Right now, air pollution in Ontario overall is associated with, in my opinion, significant risk to health, and I’m not aware of any level of air pollution that we could point to and say this is a level of air pollution without any risk whatsoever,” he said. The status quo, he said, represents a “fairly significant public health problem, and we want to make sure air quality gets better, not worse, in the future.”
Copes said he understands why people would oppose a cement plant, but it is not realistic at the moment to cut out emissions entirely. “It would be very difficult if we had everyone saying, I don’t want any emission sources anywhere near me. If everyone said, I don’t want an emission source, whether it’s a highway, a gas plant, a cement plant… we would simply say, ok, so no one gets to burn anything, and we all end up freezing in the dark,” he said.
That’s where provincial regulations come in, said Copes. The MOE generally looks at what effect a new source of pollution will have on the community overall, said Copes. The ministry is “usually diligent” in making sure a single new source of pollution doesn’t make the air quality in a community significantly worse. However, studies done during the approval process are based on predictions, so Copes said it’s useful to do some monitoring after a new facility is operational, in order to make sure it is running as expected.
Copes said Ontario’s regulations “compare pretty well” with other parts of North America, and are much better compared with regulations in Asia, for example. However, he said policymakers do balance environmental regulations with economic interests. For example, “we could ban all gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles in the province, if we really wanted,” he said, but instead, regulators will likely act gradually, slowly making rules about emissions stricter. A good approach is to make sure emissions don’t exceed regulations, and aim for an overall decrease in pollution over years, argued Copes. That could include restriction and regulations on certain sources of pollutants as well as phasing out certain sources.
The PHO’s review concludes it might not be possible to apply other studies’ results to L’Orignal, “as emissions from cement plants vary significantly based on inputs, meteorology, and pollution controls.” The review looked at case studies of individual cement plants, including in Spain, but control over pollutants can vary a lot depending on the year and the place, said Copes. So, it is hard to say if a cement plant in L’Orignal in 2016 would create the same situation as one in Spain 10 years ago, for example.
The much-discussed high smokestack will probably help disperse pollution, as well, said Copes. “Diluting pollution can look like it has some effect, especially in the area around the stack, but of course the best control is just to prevent the emission products from getting out of any stack,” he said.
The review didn’t include studies into what effect working at a cement plant might have. Copes said historically, employees are exposed to higher risks compared to other people. However, like environmental regulations, labor rules have become stricter in recent years, he said.