Children living near Rouyn-Noranda, Que., smelter overexposed to arsenic and lead, study shows

People living near a copper smelting plant in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., are demanding to know why it's taking the government so long to address their concerns about air pollution, in the wake of a new study that shows their children are being overexposed to lead and carcinogenic arsenic.

Public health and Environment Ministry officials met residents Tuesday evening to share the results of a study carried out on children in the Notre-Dame neighbourhood, near the smelter that has been in operation since 1927.

Some people left the meeting feeling frustrated over the amount of scientific information they were being asked to absorb without much time for questions.

"Each time I go outside I have this itch in my throat. I feel uncomfortable, and then I look toward the chimneys," said Manon Lessard-Bélanger, who lives two kilometres south of the Horne Smelter.

'Children are the most vulnerable'

Concerns about air and soil pollution from the smelter date back many years. For more than two decades, adults and children have been tested to check their exposure levels to lead and arsenic.

But because the tests are so intrusive, until 2018, public health officials had not been regularly asking for blood, urine or fingernail samples, according to Dr. Omobola Sobanjo, a medical consultant with the Abitibi-Témiscamingue public health authority.

In 2018, however, they took fingernail samples from about half the neighbourhood's children between the ages of nine months and six years.

They found nine of the 34 children tested had concentrations of arsenic of 800 to 4,400 nanograms per gram.

Mélanie Picard/Radio-Canada

The average for all the children tested was 3.7 times higher than normal. As a basis of comparison, public health authorities also tested children in the nearby town of Amos. Those children had an average arsenic presence of 110 nanograms per gram.

Researcher Daniel Proulx said children's health is a good indicator of the overall health of a population.

"Children are the most vulnerable to effects of lead and arsenic when it comes to the development of their nervous system," said Proulx, who led the study.

"When things are good with children, with the different contaminants, you can generally presume the rest of the population is also well."

Scientific literature shows that exposure to high levels of arsenic can cause symptoms ranging from hair loss to liver damage and cancer, while exposure to lead can lead to brain damage.

Sobanjo said the levels of pollutants found in the air and soil near the smelter, however, are not nearly high enough to signal lead and arsenic poisoning.

Still, she said, "As a public health doctor, I'm concerned that 50 per cent of my population, of the children in that neighbourhood, are exposed."

Catou Mackinnon/CBC

Residents who attended the meeting were given a pamphlet with tips on how to limit their exposure to contaminants.

Those tips include keeping windows closed on windy days, avoiding wearing outdoor shoes indoors and keeping children out of the room while vacuuming.

'They'll have to answer to us': resident

The Horne smelter is one of the world's largest producers of copper and other precious metals, and it is North America's biggest recycler of electronic components.

Glencore, which bought the smelter in 2013, plans to invest $54 million by 2021 to reduce all emissions, according to spokesperson Pierre-Philippe Dupont.

"We've added many domes so we can manipulate the products inside a closed environment, instead of outdoors," said Dupont.

The company has also invested in technology to capture emissions before they are released.

Carrie-Lynn Plante, whose two children attend daycare and school near the smelter, said she had concerns going into the meeting. But she said overall, she is relieved to see the company is taking measures to reduce emissions.

"I'm confident that it's a wake-up call. It took so long for them to act, and now we're going to be seeing major action," said Plante.

"And if we don't, then they'll have to answer to us."

Catou Mackinnon/CBC

2004 emissions cap not 'technically possible'

Even after Glencore's investments to reduce pollution, arsenic emission levels will be capped at a level that is 10 times higher than what provincial authorities had demanded in 2004.

At that time, the province gave the smelter's previous owner, Xstrata, 18 months to get its emission levels to 10 nanograms per cubic metre.

But over the years, the ministry raised that cap to 200 nanograms per cubic metre.

The 2004 demand "was based on the levels of reference for arsenic in the air, and not on what it was technically possible to do," said Annie Cassista, a mining expert with Quebec's Environment Ministry.

By 2021, the cap will be set at 100 nanograms per cubic metre. By comparison, the concentration of arsenic across Quebec normally hovers around 1 to 2 nanograms per cubic metre.

Cassista said the ministry does not have any plans to address the accumulation of arsenic or lead emissions in Rouyn-Noranda and further away.

A federal database of pollutants shows the Horne Smelter has released 936,000 kilograms (or 936 tonnes) of arsenic into the air since 1993. The amount of lead adds up to 2,710,000 kilograms (2,710 tonnes).