Oct 08 2007

Behind the Shining: Aluminum’s Dark Side

Aluminum smelters

On Belugas and Cancer

Belugas, like canaries in a coal mine, speak to a particular poison spewed

by aluminum smelters. In Quebec, where the Saint Lawrence River meets the

North Atlantic’s frigid Labrador Current, upstream industry is devastating

a population of these small white whales. Pollution is the greatest threat

to the St. Lawrence beluga population, whose numbers dropped from 5,000 to

about 650 in the past century.

Alcan is a dominant industrial force in Quebec. It has installed a network

of dams in the Lac-Saint-Jean/Saguenay River region, with a combined

capacity of 2,687 megawatts, to fuel nearby smelters with a combined

capacity of 700,000 tons per year. (www.alcan.ca)

These smelters, like all that burn coal tar, emit chemicals called

polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). In these plants, coal tar pitch

and petroleum coke are combined and baked to make anodes and cathodes for

smelting aluminum. Anode forming, baking and rodding, potlining and pot

starting activities all release toxic emissions from coal tar.

Veterinary pathologists from the University of Montreal have fingered PAHs

discharged from the upstream aluminum smelters as a contributor to a cancer

epidemic among the belugas.

According to these researchers, one out of five adults belugas suffer from

cancer, comparable to the 23% cancer rate among humans in the western

world. “Such a high percentage had never been observed in any wild animal

species, terrestrial or aquatic (with the important exception of fish). To

our knowledge, this is the first population of wild mammals that can be

compared to humans in this regard,” University of Montreal researcher

Daniel Martineau observes in the website “Diseases and Causes of Death of

Beluga from The St. Lawrence Estruary, Quebec, Canada.”


Some cancers in belugas have been fuelled by other toxic substances,

particularly PCBs and the pesticides Mirex and DDT. But researchers have

also found high levels of PAHs in the whales’ tissues.

Dr. Lee Shugart of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Tennessee, USA)

examined brain tissue from three dead whales and found the PAH compound

benzo-a-pyrene. The observed concentrations of this carcinogen in the

tissue, he concluded, “would produce cancer in other laboratory animals

under similar conditions.” (“Research: St. Lawrence River Belugas,” The

Scientist 14[19]: 19, Oct. 2, 2000)

Dr. Martineau surmises that the belugas’ diet transports PAHs from the

sediment to their tissues. “Invertebrates living in sediments contaminated

by PAH accumulate these compounds.. In summer, beluga are known to feed in

significant amounts on bottom invertebrates,” he writes. The pathologist

surmises that this exposure could be the reason why he has observed seven

cases of rare small intestine cancer among the population of 650 belugas

since 1983.

According to Dr. Martineau, extraordinary levels of up to 4,500 parts per

billion of total PAH has been found in the sediment of the Saguenay River,

which is part of the belugas’ habitat. The PAH originates “for the most

part from the aluminum factories located upstream.”

Around the beluga’s habitat lie Alcan’s 206,000 ton smelter in Laterriere,

232,000 ton smelter in Jonquiere, 415,000 ton smelter in Baie Comeau, and

its new 385,000 ton smelter in Alma. Throughout the Lac-Saint-Jean/Saguenay

region, humans also suffer from unusually high cancers. According to a

Canadian government survey, the region leads the county in rates of birth

defects. It also leads the province of Quebec in deaths caused by caused by

cardiovascular and cerbrovascular diseases and malignant tumors, according

to a separate study by the Quebec Department of Health (The Scientist)

A study of Jonquierre smelter workers in the late 1970s found that 73

workers had bladder cancer, 60 percent more than was statistically likely.

The number of workers with bladder cancer rose to 130 by 1990. (ibid).

Similar horrors have visited workers at an Alcan smelter on the other side

of Canada, in the province of British Columbia. Here, in Kitimat, Alcan

operates a 279,000 ton smelter.

In October 1989, NCI Cancer Weekly reported that “Alcan… says a study has

shown that workers at its Kitimat aluminum smelter in northwestern British

Columbia have had a slightly higher risk of bladder cancer.” (“Bladder

cancer risk noted; Canada,” NCI Cancer Weekly, Oct. 9, 1989)

Between 1986 and 1995, the Canadian Board of Occupational Health ruled that

23 workers were disabled by or died from cancers created by on-site

exposures. Tar fumes, pitch/coke dust, PAHs and other materials caused

mesothelioma, skin cancer, bladder cancer, and lung cancer in millwrights,

potroom workers, poliners, and other operators and servicemen. (Canadian

Auto Workers Local 2301-Kitimat Smelter and Kemano Power Operaions Workers,

“WCB cancer registry data,” on www.sno.net/caw2301/april98data.htm)

Medical scientists at the University of Montreal, analyzed workers health

records at Alcan’s Arvida Works in Jonquierre, Quebec. In a study published

in March 1995, the doctors confirmed the “relationship between exposure to

coal tar pitch volatiles and bladder cancer among primary aluminum

production workers.” (Tremblay C, Armstrong B, Theriault G, Brodeur J,

Departement de medecine du travail et hygiene du milieu, Universite de

Montreal, “Estimation of risk of developing bladder cancer among workers

exposed to coal tar pitch volatiles in the primary aluminum industry,”

American Journal of Industrial Medicine, March 1995 (27(3):335-48.)

Despite the long known correlation between coal tar pitch exposure to

cancer in workers, it was not until December 1999 that Alcoa warned 3,000

workers at its Australia smelters about the danger. The company also

ordered new measures at its smelters worldwide to reduce coal tar exposure.

“The letter did not explain why the company had waited five years before

informing workers of the results of the 1995 study of Alcan employees at

the Arvida smelter in Quebec,” noted Margeret Rees of Australia. (Margaret

Rees, “Alcoa Australia admits cancer dangers,” World Socialist Web Site,

January 15, 2000.)

In fact, according to an article in the Herald Sun of Australia, Alcoa knew

of potential cancer risks in its Portland and Point Henry smelters since at

least 1989. “A medical specialist at Melbourne’s respected Peter MacCallum

cancer hospital sounded alarm bells over potential cancer and chronic

asthma dangers in 1989. Cancer expert Dr. Cyril Minty warned pot room and

other workers at the Portland and Point Henry smelters could develop the

diseases if they continued to work in the same conditions for a long time.”

When the newspaper reported the doctor’s warning, Alcoa demanded a printed

retraction and said that it “emphatically rejects” any cancer risk among

smelter workers. (Karen Collier and Mark Dunn, “10 years of warnings,”

Herald Sun, Dec. 16, 1999)

Alcoa sent similar warnings to thousands of its current and former

employees worldwide. Recent studies, said Alcoa spokesman David Neurohr,

found “a small increase in cancer could be expected at lower levels of

exposure than had previously been expected… We are just being responsible

in keeping our employees informed.” (“Alcoa health warning,” Mining

Journal, Dec. 17, 1999; “Alcoa warns employees of possible cancer risk,”

Chicago Tribune, Dec. 20, 1999)

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