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Cindy Steele is moving away from the Sydney neighbourhood where she has lived for four decades, hoping to stop her six-year-old daughter's screams.

After years of demanding that government officials come up with a plan to move her and her neighbours away from Canada's worst toxic-waste site, Ms. Steele and her three daughters are leaving for the small seaside community of Wreck Cove this week.

"I told the government people I will never forgive them because this was my home for 41 years and I am forced to leave to protect my children. My children are really, really sick," Ms. Steele said in a recent interview.

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Her voice rose in anger as she looked out over an area littered with tanks, decaying structures, rusting pipelines and dark ponds that contain a witches' brew of deadly chemicals left from nearly a century of steel-making.

Ms. Steele, whose father, stepfather and uncle all died of cancer, says she won't live next to a site that could be seeping high levels of copper, lead, arsenic and benzene while the tests are being conducted and analyzed.

"We've had massive headaches, nosebleeds, breathing problems," she said.

"My six-year-old daughter keeps passing out and she wakes up holding her temples and screaming at the top of her lungs.

"Can these [government officials]not understand that these are just little kids? I've had my 17-year-old daughter to the doctor every year since she was 2, and not one person can tell me what's wrong and she's getting progressively worse."

The industrial graveyard contains the coke ovens, part of the former Sydney Steel plant, as well as the tar ponds where 700,000 tonnes of contaminants were pumped over close to a century. The area also receives an orange-coloured runoff from a nearby landfill as well as waste from as many as 20 sewage outfalls.

Elevated levels of arsenic and lead have been found in homes near the site.

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Last week Florida environmental engineer Dr. Richard Lewis found abnormally high levels of arsenic in a half-hectare site that was subsequently fenced off.

The federal and Nova Scotia governments have now embarked on a six-week program to test hair and blood samples from residents, as well as soil samples from an area that includes 4,000 homes, to determine whether the contaminants pose a health risk.

Exposure to arsenic in low doses can cause skin rashes and stomach problems, while prolonged exposure can result in neural disorders and even death.

Lead poisoning can result in headaches, learning difficulties, hyperactivity, and even heart and kidney disease.

Both federal Health Minister Allan Rock and Nova Scotia Health Minister Jamie Muir have said that if the comprehensive tests show evidence of a long-term health risk, people will be moved from their homes and compensated.

Government officials say they could be looking at moving about 135 families, but people who live near the site say as many as 1,000 homes may be on contaminated ground.

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While no one is publicly estimating the cost of a relocation plan, any such scheme would likely cost well in excess of $100-million.

In addition, the complex cleanup of the 94 hectares around the coke ovens and an adjacent landfill, as well as the tar ponds, would probably cost more than $1-billion.

For nearly two decades, people living near the site have complained of a range of respiratory ailments. And they have feared that the noxious black and orange clouds that came from the now dormant steel-making site were contributing to the area having one of the highest cancer rates in Canada.

But no epidemiological study has drawn a conclusive link between the ill health of many Sydney residents and the toxic wasteland near their homes.

Some residents of the Whitney Pier neighbourhood around the infamous site believe their health problems were ignored by governments in the past because they lived on the wrong side of the tracks -- in an area dominated by steelworkers, many of whom came to Canada after the Second World War.

Larry Nixon moved away from the neighbourhood near the coke ovens three years ago. He said his son and daughter suffer fewer headaches and seem healthier since leaving the area. Many homeowners in the Whitney Pier area can't afford to move, but fear for the health of their children if they stay.

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"How can you pay a mortgage on a house that is sitting there empty and still have to go out and pay rent and still feed your family? You can't do it. That's why so many people are asking for help. Help us get out of here," Mr. Nixon said.

Those health fears and anger about apparent government inaction dominated emotional meetings last week that were called to discuss the findings of Dr. Lewis and to provide information on the testing programs.

Many residents were enraged that the federal and Nova Scotia governments have spent close to $100-million looking for ways to deal with the pollution problem over the past decade, but failed even to define the health risks to those living close to the toxic site.

At one meeting, Cheryl Williams plunked two containers full of black muck from near her home on a table beside Dr. Lewis. Samples of sludge taken from a home owned by her mother, Raylene, have shown elevated levels of arsenic, lead, zinc and copper.

"We have residents who have black ooze and orange ooze coming up out of their ground. . . . The federal government needs to step in with some money and get us away from this toxic-waste site," she said. "If you're not willing to do that, you come and live in my home for five years, and then walk away and tell me there is no risk."

Dr. Lewis, who is urging residents to keep toddlers away from areas where they might eat contaminated soil and make sure they wash their hands after playing, insisted that a comprehensive testing program is needed to provide the scientific basis for any government action.

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He acknowledged in an interview that it is difficult to provide information when so many people are furious with both levels of government for failing to recognize the problem years ago.

"I understand people are upset and I don't blame people for being outraged. However, sometimes the way the outrage manifests itself is such that people can't get useful information," he said.

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