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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/The Globe and Mail

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.

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.

"Then one day, I decided, 'Well, it's about time I looked in the mirror,' and I sat down and broke down and cried. I just couldn't believe what was left."

Mesothelioma feels like being suffocated; there is severe weight loss, and chest pain so intense that narcotics are prescribed; death comes one to four years after diagnosis. Likewise, with asbestosis victims, there is shortness of breath and the prospect of death through lung failure.

Mr. Kinart doesn't want his life to end in silence. He wants to talk about what happened to him, to show his cancer-racked body. He wants people to know that what he has had to endure is an injustice that shouldn't be tolerated, as is the paltry compensation offered to industrial-disease victims in Ontario.

Mr. Kinart says the workplace-compensation system offered a financial choice for his pain and suffering that was little better than a lottery, belittling the loss of a decade of his life and likely more: He could collect either $298 a month until he died, or a $38,000 lump sum.

He's a mesothelioma case. He asked the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board to cut him a cheque.

The WSIB does make additional payments for income lost by not being able to work. But contrary to rumours of million-dollar worker's-comp payouts, Ontario doesn't offer much for pain and suffering -- and it deducts about $1,000 from its award for each year a person is over 45.

If Mr. Kinart were an isolated case, he probably could chalk up his misfortune to individual bad luck. But misery has lots of company here.

The WSIB has even opened up a liaison office in the local hospital to handle the heavy caseload, part of its concern, it says, over the large number of occupational disease claims.

The unofficial record keeper of what is happening in Sarnia is Mr. Brophy, one of Canada's leading industrial-health specialists.

He sees so many medical problems, suggestive of exposures to carcinogens and other toxic compounds, that he views Sarnia as the unlucky place directly under an exploding bomb. "It's not just asbestos diseases we see. We see leukemias, and multiple myelomas and lymphomas and neurological disease. We're like a ground zero."

Mr. Brophy's first inkling that something might be terribly wrong came when two people knocked on his door, on separate dates in 1994 and 1995, clutching lists. One list was of recently diagnosed mesothelioma cases in the city. The other was of people who had been employed at a local fibreglass plant who had had cancer, a list that was of particular interest to Mr. Brophy because another worker from the company had come in earlier that year wondering if his benign brain tumour was work-related.

Typical ailments at occupational-disease clinics are back problems and the like, the muscle aches and pains normally expected after a lifetime of physically demanding or repetitive work. But the lists were different. They showed that people had been exposed to asbestos, and were dying of it, or had other dangerous chemical exposures.

Mr. Brophy remembers the reaction of clinic doctor Abe Reinhartz. "He told me there is going to be trouble here. . . . 'Oh my God, this is bad news.' "

The first list bearer was George "Bud" Simpson, who had been employed at Fibreglass Canada Inc. as a production worker and millwright until the plant closed in 1991.

He got to 34 names by 1997, when he joined his dead colleagues after suffering disfiguring cancers around his throat, mouth and nose. "He was 35th on his own list," says his widow Jean Simpson.

Ms. Simpson doesn't know what exactly prompted her husband, who died at 64, to start the macabre task of cataloging the cancers of his workplace friends. But the plant, where he worked for 37 years, almost his entire adult life, had a strong emotional hold on him.

"He loved that place. . . . Bud would go down and watch them tear it down. He would be so upset when he came home. I'd say: 'It's gone. It's not there any more. You don't have a job there. Forget about it.' It was like his home away from home."

Ms. Simpson says that "it's kind of gruesome," but many of the people on her husband's lists were close friends and they worked together, went to parties together, and now are all buried together in the local cemetery.

By the time he died, after a 5½-year fight with cancer, Mr. Simpson had 120 radiation treatments, the roof of his mouth had been removed and he was considering the removal of his nose, where a tumour had grown to the size of a tennis ball. When he died, most of the money in a U.S.-dollar bank account he had opened for a Hawaii dream vacation with his wife was used to bury him.

In Sarnia, Ms. Simpson helps to run a support group for those affected by the valley's illness outbreak, and she says she has observed an unusual financial hierarchy among all the widows, depending on the stature of the companies for whom their husband worked. Her husband's pension was cut off when he died, and she says she has personally been snubbed by some of the better-off women whose men worked for bigger companies.

"Imperial Oil widows are sitting there, with all their jewellery on and their gold chains," she says.

Fibreglass widows are struggling, according to Ms. Simpson. One of her friends, in her early 70s, is working reluctantly as a bingo runner for $10 a game.

Ms. Simpson has urged former plant workers who are sick to file compensation claims so their wives won't have to live like this when they die. "I said to those men: 'You want your wife prepared if anything happens. You want everything there for her. You don't want her to be out there fighting.' "

Workers at the fibreglass plant were exposed to a variety of chemicals, including glass fibres, formaldehyde and solvents. A study last year prepared for the WSIB by occupational health specialists at McMaster University found deaths from lung cancer among the plant's workers to be 40 per cent higher than expected, while kidney cancers, for unknown reasons, were double the expected rate.

Former workers at the plant have filed 204 claims with the government for compensation, including 36 lung-cancer victims who believe their illnesses were caused at the plant.

The second list bearer was Harry Buist, who worked as a carpenter for about 16 years at Imperial Oil, and had, ironically, been an instructor at the site who taught co-workers how to handle asbestos safely.

In 1994, at the age of 56, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Over the next six months, he and his wife Margaret were able to compile a list of 26 others around town who also had the rare disease. Within two years of his diagnosis, he died.

Ms. Buist says her husband was livid that his job cost him his life. "He felt that what the companies are doing is murder. You can't get away with it in private life, if you expose somebody or give them poison. You're going to be charged with murder. This is just legalized murder," she said. "He felt they killed him."

When she compiled the list, Ms. Buist was surprised how easily she could find a cancer so infrequently diagnosed that Canadian health statistics seldom bother to list it.

"There is not a company in town that I haven't got a name from," she says, adding that strangers would often overhear her talking about the illness and volunteer examples from their own families.

In a typical case, at her dentist's office, a woman said: " 'Oh, excuse me, are you talking about mesothelioma?' And I say 'Yes,' and she said: 'My mom died of it last year.' " The mother had been a janitor in the valley cleaning lunch rooms where the men worked.

Imperial Oil spokesman Richard O'Farrell says the company did use a lot of asbestos, as did others in the valley. He doesn't mince words. "This is, again, not particular to us. It's tragic. There is no question. If we all knew what we know now, obviously these things wouldn't have happened."

He says today's diseases are a legacy from decades ago, and now the company's workers practise safe handling of asbestos. Imperial is also helping to fund research into medical treatment for those afflicted by it. A total of 31 of Imperial's Sarnia employees have been compensated for mesothelioma, out of a company total of 42 across the country. It has also had 10 workers here compensated for asbestosis and nine for lung cancer, based on figures to March, 2004.

One of the company's doctors, Mark Brewer, has personally known many of the workers affected, and he hopes the caseload has peaked. "My sympathies, certainly, to anybody [with mesothelioma] It's a very, very miserable disease."

Under prodding from Mr. Brophy, Health Canada last year issued a review of the mesothelioma cluster in the valley. Although it is dated, it found that from 1986 to 1993, there were 21 cases. By the end of 1995, the number tripled to 63.

The federal analysis of provincial WSIB claims read like a who's who of the valley's corporate world: "The petrochemical industry (Imperial Oil, Dow Chemical, Novacor Chemical, Nova Chemicals) and Holmes Insulations Ltd. and Holmes Foundry Chrysler Canada accounted for 74 per cent of accepted claims," it said. More than half of the afflicted were construction workers.

This occupational finding also shows up at Mr. Brophy's clinic, where those who built and maintain the valley's chemical plants are the biggest group complaining of problems.

That description fits Bob Hart, a 63-year-old former insulator recently diagnosed with asbestosis and, quite understandably, fearful. On the day of his interview with The Globe, his best friend died of mesothelioma.

He is also in the middle of two generations struggling with industrial diseases. His father, a pipe fitter at Imperial Oil, died of asbestosis two years ago. His stepdaughter, who worked for a few years as a bookkeeper at an insulation company and believes she had exposures there, had a lung removed after a mesothelioma diagnosis.

Mr. Hart knows the drill with asbestosis, because he cared for his father as he died, including emergency night-time visits to comfort him as "he'd be passing just incredible amounts of blood. He was very scared." (Coughing blood from the lungs is a common symptom when dying from asbestosis.)

Mr. Hart says he figures that when he was working in the 1960s, somebody must have known the dangers, but no one bothered to enlighten him or his work crews. Those were days when overtime was to be had in the valley, and he was unknowingly robbing himself of part of his future.

"Back in those days, I could take my tool box from one job to the other. There was lots of overtime. The benefits were good and everything. The only thing is now it costs you the most valuable asset any man has, his time. And this is what I'm losing, part of my life."

He hopes a positive attitude will enhance his longevity. "It makes you think how precious life is. You get up in the morning and you say: 'Thank you new day.' "

Chemical plants are really just a big collection of pipes, and insulators are one of the most vulnerable groups because they used to wrap pipes with asbestos.

"We put up tonnes of that stuff," Mr. Hart says. When he cut insulation, he remembers, he would be enveloped in what he now knows were carcinogenic dust clouds. "You'd cut your stuff with a saw, asbestos flying all over the place."

As Mr. Hart is being photographed and out of earshot, his pensive wife, Sheila, says she is scared. Her husband can barely do anything more strenuous than climb a flight of stairs without feeling winded. "I don't want to be a widow," she says.

Flaviano Fracalanza worked at Holmes Insulations, a now-defunct plant where provincial government labour inspectors once found what they believed were the highest airborne asbestos fibre concentrations ever recorded, according to documents released under freedom of information law.

He remembers the plant was "unbelievable, the dust and the noise."

That may be one of the reasons Mr. Fracalanza's wife Martha has the scarring on the lining of her lungs known as plural plaques. Plaques are thick, partly calcified spots that develop on the inner lining of the ribcage and the diaphragm.

They are part of the body's natural immune response to asbestos fibres, and those with them have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma.

Because Ms. Fracalanza never worked in the valley, her ailment has only one likely cause: She is what occupational disease specialists call a secondary victim.

She washed her husband's work clothes from when they were married in 1960 to the early 1970s, when the company stopped making products, such as pipes, containing asbestos. She recalls a "very fine dust" in the folds of her husband's clothes and pockets, but she didn't know she was exposing herself to one of the world's worst carcinogens.

"At that time we had no idea, so I'd say we were fools really. I think people at that time were afraid. There weren't too many jobs and if you had a job, you were happy to have it," she relates.

Mr. Fracalanza has been diagnosed with asbestosis. His brother, Armando, who worked at a sister plant to Holmes, has died of lung cancer.

Mr. Fracalanza says workers did worry about asbestos, but managers told them that the reports that it was a killer were exaggerations. "They said, 'Oh, it might be dangerous, but not for sure,' not like we know now."

At the clinic, Mr. Brophy is willing to stick his neck out a little, and make projections.

Based on the incubation periods for cancers, he thinks the community is still on the upward part of the curve for work-induced illnesses. Asbestos-related diseases typically have a 30-to-40-year lag, and there was plenty of exposure right up until the 1980s.

And although the asbestos era is winding down, Sarnia industries have had a long history of major toxic spills. The number of spills recently led the provincial environmental ministry to send its SWAT team to investigate, and Mr. Brophy fears the releases will leave a legacy of health problems.

"We have tolerated here toxic exposures, both occupationally and environmentally, for decades. That's one of the real tragedies of this," he says.

Mr. Kinart worked at Welland Chemical, a company that has since shut down, where he used a lot of asbestos. One of Mr. Kinart's foremen recently came by his house -- a case of the boss asking the worker to vouch that he had worked in the plant to help speed his own asbestosis compensation claim.

The abandoned plant, on the outskirts of town, didn't have a skull and crossbones on the outside to warn workers of the dangers they would face inside.

Instead, it had a now-faded sign, common at industrial plants, that subtly blames workers' inattention for accidents: "Safety awareness. Mistakes cost money," the sign reads.

Mr. Kinart knew he had problems when doctors draining fluid out of his lungs hit a gusher of liquids.

Doctors, he noticed, have a way of telepathing terminal cases. "You could tell as soon as you walked in the room, you were done. The doctor shook my hand and said: 'I'm sorry, buddy, because I've done all I can do for you. Now you're going to have to leave it to the man upstairs and yourself.' "

Mr. Kinart wants to believe that there will be punishment for those who knew about the dangers he faced, and didn't speak out.

"There will be a day of reckoning for them. I don't know when it is but I hope it's as hard and hurts as much as it does for me to walk away. . . .

"Like, I got a wife, I got my first grandchild now and . . . I can't even pick him up, my grandchild. He's too heavy for me."

Martin Mittelstaedt is The Globe and Mail's environment reporter. Louie Palu is a Globe staff photographer.

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