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What's environmental risk to our children?

June 25, 2016 4:15 A.M.
(File Image from anti-Ajax coalition crowd-funding page)

By PETER TSIGARIS

There has been considerable debate about the impacts of the proposed KGHM Ajax open pit mine due to its proximity to our community. According to the KGHM Ajax website (http://ajaxmine.ca/responsible-development/) one of its core values is that of “Zero Harm”: “[w]e are committed to Zero Harm for our employees, our communities, and the environment.”

Dr. Peter Tsigaris

Opponents, however, state that the risks are too high and that there will be environmental, ecological and socio-economic damages. For example, Ugo Lapointe from Miningwatch Canada gave six reasons as to why our community should be gravely concerned about the Ajax open pit mine: it’s too big, it’s too close; there will be detrimental health effects from a deteriorating air quality; there will be water contamination; there will be partial destruction of Jacko Lake and Peterson Creek; there is a risk of catastrophic spill; and there has been no consent given by the Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation (SSN) people.

The mine would be located within 6 kilometers of 7 elementary schools and 4 high schools, and would be 1.6 km (1 mile) from the closest homes in Aberdeen. The Ajax mine will generate over 1.4 billion tons of waste rocks and toxic tailings.  Together, these wastes will contain deleterious metals such as actinolite, arsenic, bismuth, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, molybdenum, serpentine, uranium, zinc, among others. Environmental toxicants will be spread into the air, on and under the earth, as well as into the water. In this editorial, new scientific evidence showing the effects of environmental toxicants on children will be brought into light.

A recent study by Persico, Figlio, and Roth (2016) provides evidence that proximity of environmental toxicants has a significant impact on a child’s cognitive development. Using population-level birth and schooling records in Florida, the researchers followed cohorts of children between 1994 and 2002 to examine the effects of prenatal exposure to environmental toxicants on children living within 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) of a Superfund site. Superfund sites have been identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as being severe in terms of toxic waste, thus posing a hazard to human health or the environment and requiring a cleanup.  Canada is no exception to these sorts of Superfund-like sites, having over 21,000 federal sites listed in the Federal Contaminated Sites Inventory (http://www.federalcontaminatedsites.gc.ca/).

Persico, Figlio, and Roth examined siblings’ school performance, comparing the performance of those who were conceived before or during cleanup of the site with that of their sibling(s) conceived after the site cleanup was completed. Persico and colleagues found that children conceived to mothers living within 3.2 km of a Superfund site before it was cleaned were 7.4 percentage points more likely than their later-born sibling(s) to perform poorly in school. These underperforming students conceived prior to cleanup were more likely to repeat a grade, to have lower test scores, and were more likely to be suspended from school than their sibling(s).

Furthermore, relative proximity to the Superfund site is more bad news. The likelihood of a child being diagnosed with a mental disability increases to 10 percentage points if he or she is conceived to mothers living 1.6 km (1 mile) from the site.

Hence, the research supports the belief that early life contact to environmental toxicants will result in increased long-term cognitive and development disabilities in children. The study recommends that the cleanup of severe toxic waste sites has significant positive effects on a variety of long-term cognitive and developmental outcomes for children.

Given that children could very well be conceived near the Ajax mine’s toxic wastes in the same radius examined by Persico and colleagues, will it be more likely for a child to be diagnosed with cognitive disability relative to a child that is not as close to the toxic waste site of the open pit mine after controlling for all other factors? We could find out half a century later by letting the mine operate for 20-25 years, cleaning up the contaminated site, and then observing siblings conceived to mothers during the end of the operation and after cleanup takes place.  Does it make any sense to allow this operation to happen and then undertake this controlled experiment?  No, it makes no sense to undertake such a risk of creating inequality before birth for children.

Reference:

Lapoint, Ugo, “Six Reasons To Be Concerned About the Ajax Open Pit Mine in Kamloops, B.C.” Miningwatch Canada, 7 April 2016, 9.46pm EDT, http://miningwatch.ca/blog/2016/4/7/six-reasons-be-concerned-about-ajax-open-pit-mine-kamloops-bc accessed on June 18th 2016

Persico, Claudia, David Figlio, and Jeffrey Roth. Inequality Before Birth: The Developmental Consequences of Environmental Toxicants. No. w22263. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016.

Peter Tsigaris is a professor at Thompson Rivers University.

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