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The Globe and Mail: Search [an error occurred while processing this directive]
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Sarnia's ex-chemical workers 'dropping like flies' [an error occurred while processing this directive] Sarnia's ex-chemical workers 'dropping like flies'
Exposure in '50s, '60s to asbestos, petroleum products
and other chemicals leaves grim legacy of disease;
compensation tough to get

Saturday, February 13, 1999
MARTIN MITTELSTAEDT
The Globe and Mail

Sarnia -- John Bichard isn't the kind of person most people would associate with industrial diseases.

He's a former senior research scientist with Imperial Oil. He holds patents for helping to develop new refining processes. He helped build the prototypes of the equipment now used in Sarnia's chemical valley and at the Syncrude oil sands plant in Alberta.

But Mr. Bichard also has asbestosis, colon cancer, rectal cancer, prostate cancer and anemia, one of dozens of people in this Southwestern Ontario city who are afflicted by diseases associated with occupational exposures to dangerous substances.

Mr. Bichard finds it hard to contain his anger over his medical problems and those of colleagues who are dead or are suffering from lung cancer, brain tumours, or mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lung lining.

"The people I worked with are dropping like flies," he said of industrial diseases." It's a major tragedy."

While many retirees are busy planning vacations, Mr. Bichard, who stopped working in 1987, says his life revolves around never-ending trips to doctors and medical clinics. The diseases are so painful he is often exhausted by merely walking to his car.

More than 450 workers and their survivors in Sarnia's petrochemical complex and at several factories that closed in the 1970s to early 1990s have made workers' compensation claims recently through their unions or through occupational health clinics for industrial dis eases.

The huge number has made many occupational health specialists view Sarnia, home of Canada's chemical valley, as a world-class industrial tragedy.

Recently released Ministry of Labour documents indicate that some workers in the city were exposed to asbestos levels more than 8,000 times higher than the current standards.

The records, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, show government inspectors were aware of major safety viola tions due to asbestos exposures in Sarnia in the 1950s and 1960s, but did little to force industry to clean up.

Many cancers have latency periods of decades, so some of the diseases appearing today could have been prevented through strict enforcement of safety standards decades ago.

"I think all the industries in the valley are affected by this attitude, by not realizing their responsibility to tell the workers what was happening," Mr. Bichard said.

Mr. Bichard blames his health problems in part to his exposure to asbestos, although he also mentions cancer-causing benzene and other dangerous substances found in petroleum products.

Often while working, he recalled, he'd be enveloped in clouds of fine asbestos particles.

"I used to get asbestos in my throat and cough and cough," he said, problems for which he would seek out the company's doctor.

"He'd say: 'John, asbestos can't hurt you.' It can't hurt at the time but 30 years later is a different story," Mr. Bichard said.

Although his claim for compensation due to asbestosis has been accepted, Mr. Bichard said he has had to endure mean-spirited examination by company lawyers.

Often, lawyers want minute-by-minute accounts of his recollections of asbestos exposures that took place 30 years earlier. He began working for Imperial in 1954 and is angry provincial law prevents him from taking class action lawsuits against employers for the safety records.

Under provincial law, workers injured on the job or afflicted with an industrial disease are reimbursed through a government-operated insurance company.

Other workers are also concerned about potential medical problems due to exposures to chemicals in Sarnia workplaces.

Clare Hall, a former worker at Holmes' foundry operation, recalls in the early 1970s that when new chemicals were brought into the plant, the pigeons that used to roost there began dying.

"They'd hit the floor. Sometimes they'd kick their feet but they'd be dead," he said.

The foundry used silica, and powerful chemicals like isocyanates and triethylamine .

Mr. Hall suffers from heart disease, and he's worried because three friends who used to work at Holmes, all in their 50s, have recently died. Two died from heart attacks and one from cancer.

Exposure to isocyanates in particular were frightening, he said. "You felt like there was something going to explode in your chest."

Mr. Bichard is upset because the problems he is facing were avoidable, if the companies had made safety equipment available.

"Why the heck didn't they come here and deal with the problem in a civilized manner? Then you wouldn't have all these horror stories," he said.


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