Air quality in Nunavut’s capital now failing provincial health standard

Levels of cancer-causing dioxins and furans higher than Ontario guidelines


The latest data collected on air quality in Iqaluit show that while fine particulate matter in the air, as a result of the burning dump, remains low, the levels of dioxins and furans are exceeding Ontario health standards.

A July 18 news release from the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Health says, “while long-term exposure to high levels of dioxins is known to increase cancer risk, the levels of dioxins observed in Iqaluit are far below the health standard for cancer.”

The release does not explain what is meant by “health standard for cancer.”

The Ontario comparison is used because Nunavut does not have any air quality regulations.

Iqaluit’s dump, which contains years of waste, including used diapers, paint cans and all manner of plastics, has been smouldering for at least 52 days.

The city has identified a plan to spray and dunk the burning garbage with seawater but they still await approval from the GN — and someone to help pay the estimated $4.5 million cost.

A document which outlines air quality standards in Ontario sets the 24-hour Ambient Air Quality Criterion at 0.1 picograms per cubic metre of air. Iqaluit’s air quality tests measured 0.2 picograms.

To get an idea of what that means, one milligram is equivalent to 1 billion picograms.

“Although dioxin concentrations have exceeded the relevant health standard, this does not mean adverse health effects are imminent; rather it means there is potential,” says a GN backgrounder issued along with the July 18 news release.

“It is important to remember that all people are regularly exposed to dioxins through burning garbage, burning diesel fuel, in fatty foods in our diet, and tobacco smoke.”

The backgrounder says pregnant women and women of child-bearing age may be particularly vulnerable to dioxin and furan exposure as those chemicals, “can decrease the fertility of male offspring.”

A 2011 report on dioxins and furans put out by the Ontario government says dioxins and furans are usually formed as “by-products of combustion and many industrial process” such as cement manufacturing, metals production and smelters.

Dioxins, furans and dioxin-like PCBs remain for a long time in the environment and accumulate in biological systems, eventually getting deposited on vegetation, soil and surface waters, says the Ontario document.

Some studies, says the report, have shown that industrial workers or people exposed to dioxins and furans as a result of industrial accidents, can suffer adverse health effects including cancer, dermal, hepatic and thyroid effects, diabetes, cardiovascular, respiratory, immunologic, neurological and reproductive effects.

Health Canada and Environment Canada continue work with the GN to monitor air quality in Iqaluit. They check for:

• particulate matter;

• ozone;

• nitrogen oxides;

• sulphur oxides;

• associated metals;

• volatile organic compounds (VOCs);

• polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); and,

• dioxins and furans.

The GN continues to encourage people to stay indoors as much as possible with the windows closed, especially those who are elderly, pregnant or have respiratory problems, and in particular, when wind is blowing dump smoke into town.

Dioxins and Furans Fact Sheet

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