OHS Canada Magazine

Paper mill launches investigation into cancer concerns

THUNDER BAY, Ont. (Canadian OH&S News)


THUNDER BAY, Ont. (Canadian OH&S News)

High cancer rates in Thunder Bay, Ont. has both past and present mill workers concerned that there might be a connection to their paper plant.

As a result, they have enlisted an occupational health clinic to determine whether workers contracted cancer from the chemicals or processes at the northern Ontario paper mill. A joint committee was formed between management and labour representatives from the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) to address the health and safety concerns of workers, who have shown a high risk of cancer.

Bob Hoffman, CEP’s representative on the health and safety committee, said he has been approached by both workers who fear that conditions at the mill contributed and could still be contributing to their cancer development.

“We noticed a high rate of cancer, especially around different processes at the mill,” explained Hoffman, who is also the local CEP chapter’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) co-ordinator. “[Workers] were concerned that some of the chemicals on that machine may have contributed to cancer … One chemical might be safe, but when you combine it with another chemical, what happens to that? We don’t know.”

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Hoffman said that they have circulated a survey to begin to determine whether there is a connection. The survey asks past and present workers whether they had cancer, what type of cancer and if they can provide medical history. Hoffman added that in recent decades, the five major paper mills in Thunder Bay have cleaned up their processes.

“We’re trying to determine if there’s a correlation,” he went on to say. “Through this survey, if we do determine this has done anything wrong, or we do determine they are cancerous, we want those eliminated too. We could do an inventory of the possible carcinogens in the mill and get rid of them.”

After the preliminary data is collected from former and current employees, it will be sent to the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), where it will remain confidential.

Donna Campbell is the executive director at OHCOW’s Thunder Bay and Sudbury clinics. She said that they are in the very beginning stages of their data collection, but the latency period of cancer means many forms of the disease can take years to manifest in the body. Therefore, some of the processes at the mill may have already been cleaned up — but if not, that would need to be corrected.

“If there is no issue, then there is no point looking into anything right now. If it happens to be that we find there are cancers that are believed to be work-related, then we, through that joint committee, would work with them,” Campbell said. “Have the exposures been rectified? If not, then let’s look at what’s causing the cancer and let’s eliminate it at the source.”

The Thunder Bay paper mill is owned by Resolute Forest Products Inc., who is also a part of the joint-health and safety committee. Though a spokesperson from Resolute Forest Products could not be reached for a comment, Campbell said it is encouraging to see a company willingly pursue an investigative health and safety initiative.

“What this is all about is prevention. There may be that there could be some WSIB claims, but the goal is that those do not happen in the future and we work in a manner in order to ensure that this is done,” she said.

The surveys are due back to OHCOW on May 3.

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