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Blayne Kinart kisses his daughter Shari goodbye after a short visit to the house. 58-year-old Blayne Kinart a former chemical worker who died from Mesothelioma, a cancer associated with asbestos exposure in Sarnia, Ontario. Residents of the area have nicknamed Sarnia "Chemical Valley", due to the large number of chemical plants operating in the area. Blayne passed away on July 6, 2004. (Louie Palu For The Globe and Mail)

Blayne Kinart kisses his daughter Shari goodbye after a short visit to the house. 58-year-old Blayne Kinart a former chemical worker who died from Mesothelioma, a cancer associated with asbestos exposure in Sarnia, Ontario. Residents of the area have nicknamed Sarnia "Chemical Valley", due to the large number of chemical plants operating in the area. Blayne passed away on July 6, 2004.

(Louie Palu For The Globe and Mail)

Dying for a living Add to ...

Blayne Kinart is a man who used to take pride in the look of his body. When he was 50, he says, there wasn't an ounce of fat on it. He was all muscle, a tribute to the physical rigours of being a millwright in Canada's chemical valley, the maze of petrochemical plants located on the southern outskirts of this Ontario city.

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His wife Sandy likes to joke that her husband, a childhood sweetheart who caught her eye in grade school, had always been as "healthy as a horse. If you got a cold in 300 years, it was something."

But today, at 57, Mr. Kinart looks like he wandered into Sarnia directly from a Nazi death camp. Eighteen months ago, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer in the lining of the chest wall. It's an exceedingly rare cancer -- but one that is exceedingly common around Sarnia.

If you are unfortunate enough to get mesothelioma, it basically means only two things. The most immediate is that you've just been handed a death sentence, and an excruciatingly painful one. The other is that at some point in your life, you've breathed asbestos fibres.

There is an epidemic of mesothelioma in Sarnia, the epicentre of what, by some assessments, is the worst outbreak of industrial disease in recent Canadian history.

The local occupational-disease clinic has in the past six years been contacted by 2,944 workers complaining of a bewildering and horrifying array of illnesses. Besides mesotheliomas, there are leukemias, lung cancers, brain cancers, breast cancers and gasotrointestinal cancers, among other afflictions.

Jim Brophy runs the clinic, whose caseload is equivalent to a quarter of the area's industrial and construction work force. "The whole city is full of these folks," Mr. Brophy says. "The disease pattern is mind-boggling."

Among the patterns are women who have had their lung cavities scarred because they've done something married women did without thinking in the 1960s and 1970s -- they washed their husband's work clothes. This isn't normally life-threatening, but it is if your husband's coveralls are dusted with asbestos. In other cases, industrial cancers are family affairs, afflicting multiple generations.

Mr. Brophy believes that what is now occurring in Sarnia is the country's biggest occupational-disease disaster. If current information is correct, "Sarnia would have to be pretty close to the top, if not the top."

The assessment that the city is experiencing a kind of slow-motion Bhopal is hard to make conclusively, because no one is bothering to study in any detail the health of workers in the country's blue-collar communities. There is no national registry that tracks cancer cases by occupation, the rudimentary database that would allow a better judgment on whether Sarnia is the outlier that it appears to be.

But then again, the Sarnia area has 20 per cent of the country's refineries, hosts Canada's largest hazardous-waste dump, produces about 40 per cent of the country's petrochemicals and, according to federal toxic-release statistics, has some of the country's highest discharges into the environment of dangerous chemicals.

Its industries have also been huge users and producers of asbestos. Although asbestos has been tightly controlled since the mid-1970s and early 1980s, the material was once used indiscriminately as an insulating wrap for pipes and reactor vessels in petrochemical plants.

Hospital case data for Sarnia during the 1990s do provide some clues. For men living in the community, the overall cancer rate was about 34 per cent higher than the provincial average, the lung-cancer rate 50 per cent higher, the mesothelioma rate five times higher and the asbestosis rate nine times higher. But the figures dramatically underestimate the risks individual workers face because the majority of the people in Sarnia haven't had industrial exposures, according to Mr. Brophy.

He thinks much of the suffering here could have been prevented, at least when it comes to asbestos. The dangers of it were becoming known in the 1930s and 1940s, but little was done to control exposures until the 1970s. "The regulatory system and the government just totally failed to protect these workers," Mr. Brophy says.

Mr. Kinart doesn't dwell on this big-picture stuff. For him, the effects of his disease are more immediate, scary and personal. For five months after his diagnosis, he couldn't bring himself to look in the mirror. He knew that his body was under attack by the cancer and he was afraid of what he would see.

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