Friday, November 9, 2007

Chemical Valley

Michael, my assistant designer arrived at work today complaining about a lingering a sinus cold. In the month that follows he will visit two doctors and willfully surrender to their prescribed remedies of antihistamines and antibiotics. His right eye will begin to protrude and his headaches will become more frequent and more severe. On a weekend of unbearable pain, he will go to emergency at Mt. Sinai Hospital where an MRI reveals a tumor the size of a golf ball between his eye and his brain.

My suspicions lead me to his hometown, Sarnia, which is situated in an area called Chemical Valley. Forty percent of the chemical companies in Canada are in “the valley”. Last month a report was released called Exposing Chemical Valley - An investigation of Cumulative Air Pollution in the Sarnia, Ontario Area. The executive summary reads as follows "What is particularly striking about the air pollution in the Sarnia area is the amount of toxic pollutants released. In 2005, the NPRI facilities in the Sarnia area emitted 5.7 million kilograms of “Toxic Air Pollutants,” including numerous chemicals associated with reproductive and developmental disorders and cancer among humans. These toxic air emissions are more than the NPRI releases from the entire provinces of Manitoba, New Brunswick or Saskatchewan and greater than any other community in Ontario."

Michael will begin to bleed from his nose from time to time. This spontaneous hemorrhagic condition though innocent and non-threatening in appearance can be terminal if it is not dealt with immediately. The emergency operation will require one surgeon to extricate the tumor and another to reattach the front of his skull. The hope is to remove the entire tumor with this radical procedure. Michael will survive the operation because of his good physical health. The tumor is removed successfully. On Michael's insistence, his father will call me after the nine-hour ordeal. The conversation is a struggle for Michael's father as he stoically describes the trauma engulfing his family and his only son.

There is over fifty years of environmental chemo-enhancement in the Sarnia area. There is a dearth results on the damage being done to the ecosystem on the part of American and Canadian environment-related government services. The journalists have done their part over the years, triggered by mysterious floating blobs the “size of a basketball court” in Lake Ontario, the unusually high frequency of chronic symptoms in the aboriginal community and the continuing empirical evidence of damage to Sarnia’s air, water and the health of its community. The citizens have repeatedly organized their protest to draw attention to the anomalies that permeate their environment and the community.

In the period before Michael’s radioactive therapy and the administering of 'chemo elixirs’, his cancer will grow back. "I just want my life back,” he says without resentment, just a tired expression on his face. The radiologist warned that he might be blind and deaf on one side due to the proximity of the tumor and the aggressiveness of the therapy, regardless there is no alternative. Miraculously, Michael survives his ordeal of cures - the cutting, the burning and the poisoning - and after a punishing year of interrupted time he will resume his life as a young Toronto designer, all of his senses intact.

Could this intrusion on Michael's life have been prevented? Probably not. However, it appears the elected officials in Sarnia and the citizens of Sarnia themselves have made disastrous trade-offs alongside the companies that fuelled their local economy. Clearly the perpetrators are the chemical companies, but surely those with the power to protect the community and the citizens whose responsibility it is to help each other are complicit. Sound action was undermined by denial, short-term agendas and procrastination at great human expense. Decades of collective compromise, perhaps democracy at its worst, has proven to be a flawed strategy deferring the real battle for others to fight from hospital beds.

Today in the studio, long before the diagnosis, I pass an article to Michael on an abandoned fiberglass factory in Chemical Valley. He recalls, “Hey, I used to skateboard in that building.”

1 comment:

BGN said...

I am very sorry to hear about Michael’s condition, and hope the best for him. How old was Michael when he was diagnosed with the tumor? I don’t think Sarnia is to blame for his condition. Studies in Sarnia show employees working at these chemical plants had a lower mortality and cancer incidence than general population for major causes of death. However, Sarnia shows higher incidence rates of prostate cancer and malignant mesothelioma (type of lung cancer) due to asbestos. The factory he mentioned was an asbestos insulation foundry which was closed in 1988. This factory is north of the “Sarnia Chemical Valley” and is not a part of it. I personally think that you are blaming Sarnia for a reason it doesn’t need to be blamed for.