Health Canada revealed Wednesday that only five of the first 640 soil samples tested in the neighbourhood north of the Nova Scotia’s Sydney Steel Coke Ovens (Sysco) exceeded acceptable short-term exposure levels.

Provincial Health Minister Jamie Muir, who never saw a health hazard he didn’t think Sydney residents could live with, was quick to declare that the hot spots had nothing to do with pollution from Sysco.

As you might have guessed, they were the victims’ fault: arsenic found where a family had dumped ashes from its coal stove; lead left behind after careless removal of an old pipe.

Then came Friday’s Chronicle-Herald, and a page-one story that left even the most jaded Tar Ponds watchers sick with rage. The “short term exposure levels” against which samples had been checked were not the same guidelines the rest of Canada is expected to live with. The Sydney samples had been judged by much more relaxed standards drawn up specifically for this project.

In every case, the Herald revealed, the short-term Sydney exposure levels were higher – much higher – than national guidelines set by Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. The acceptable limit for lead was eleven times higher for Sydney than for the rest of Canada. For arsenic, it was sixty-eight times higher. For benzene, 1,040 times higher. For polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, 1,625 times higher. For xylenes, 165,000 times higher.

Worse still, Health Canada refused to say how many tests had exceeded the stricter CCME guidelines. The test results remained with the private labs that carried out the analyses, beyond reach of Freedom of Information requests.

CBRM mayor John Morgan called it “abhorrent” that the safety of Sydney residents would be judged by different standards than the rest of the country.

Bureaucrats responsible for the long-delayed tar ponds and coke ovens cleanup were furious with the story, which they believe was a serious misrepresentation of the nature and meaning of the tests.

“We’re upset,” Don Ferguson, regional director general for Health Canada barked into his speakerphone. “The CCME guidelines are not for human exposure. They are for the most vulnerable element living in the soil.”

Stephen Esposito, project manager for the consortium of environmental firms carrying out the assessment, said the project has been “approached in the same way it would be approached at any site across the country.”

The CCME guidelines, Esposito said, are conservative numbers intended only to identify areas of concern that require further investigation. The point of the further investigation is to determine whether the flagged chemicals pose a human health risk in the particular circumstances that exist at that specific site.

Investigators in Sydney, he said, are trying to figure out whether it’s a safe place to live, i.e., whether residential exposure through a seventy-year life span puts citizens at risk. Their analysis will be completed by September 1.

With public concern at a fever pitch, they were also asked to determine whether it was safe for families to live there for even a short period of time. For that test, the benchmark was a toddler living in the neighbourhood for sixty days, the time it will take to complete the chronic exposure analysis.

In both cases, analysis followed a similar course, Esposito said. For each toxic chemical, investigators determined the maximum tolerable dose over seventy years (for chronic exposure) and over sixty days (short-term risk). The tolerable-dose figures came from Health Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Then they determined possible pathways of exposure residents might experience. For the short-term risk assessment, the researchers estimated that a toddler might conceivably ingest as much as 400 milligrams of contaminated soil per day – roughly one-third of a restaurant sugar pack.

The short-term standards reported by the Chronicle-Herald represent the amount of each toxin that would have to be present in soil for a toddler who ate 400 mg. per day for sixty days to exceed the maximum safe dose established by Health Canada or the EPA.

The lifetime risk to be reported in September will look at multiple pathways of exposure – ingestion, absorption through the skin, inhalation of dust – and determine how much of each toxin must be present in the soil for people who spend their whole lives in the neighbourhood to exceed a safe dose.

“Risk assessment isn’t rocket science,” said Esposito. “It has a lot of complex underlying components but the basic process is very straightforward.”

“We do this for a living,” said Bryan Leece, senior toxicologist on the project.

Does the coke ovens cleanup pose unique problems?

“We’re asked that all the time,” said Leece. “The short answer is no.”

He rattled off half a dozen comparable cleanups in Ontario: massive industrial pollution of Hamilton Harbour; radioactive waste from a nuclear plant at Port Hope; PCB contamination at Cornwall from a General Motors plant across the U.S. border; a toxin-spewing Inco plant at Port Colborne.

Any of them have 700,000 tonnes of toxic waste?

“I think Randle’s Reef in Hamilton Harbour has you beat,” said Leece.

Ever have to move a whole neighbourhood?

“In the backyard of the nuclear plant at Port Hope.”

“The Sydney Steel Plant used conventional technology for making steel and coke,” said Esposito. “There are probably hundreds of sites like this in the U.S., many of which have been cleaned up. There are significant issues, but they’re not unmanageable.”

All the more reason to get on with it.