Category: That’s life

Does Pictou have higher cancer rates?

On Saturday, I questioned Herald columnist Gail Lethbridge’s contention that Pictou County has some of Canada’s highest cancer rates, and these may be attributable to noisome emissions from the Northern Pulp mill. Among other things, I faulted Lethbridge for not citing a source for her claims about cancer rates in Pictou, for not indicating which of the 200+ cancers are higher there, and for drawing conclusions about public health based on anecdotal evidence.

A Contrarian reader who worked at the “Cancer Lodge in Halifax” (which I take to mean the Canadian Cancer Society’s Daffodil Place) takes up the cause:

Many patients staying at the Lodge discussed how the number of cancer patients from the Pictou/Trenton area were higher than any other area in Nova Scotia. Out of sheer curiosity, I checked this out in the data files which I had access to, and lo and behold they were absolutely right. That area was far and away higher than any other area of Nova Scotia as far as cancer rates were concerned.

Well, maybe. Here are some factors I would want to consider before concluding that cancer rates are higher in Pictou County, let alone attributing those cancers to the Northern Pulp mill, obnoxious as it is:

Daffodil Place 250Does the Daffodil Lodge reflect the whole province? It provides “home-away-from-home” support for patients who travel to Halifax for cancer treatment. That eliminates patients from Metro, and those patients from surrounding counties who stay in their own homes during treatment. It eliminates most patients from Cape Breton, which has a cancer treatment centre of its own. Taken together, that’s well over half the province absent from the sample.

Does a confirmation bias kick in when “many patients discuss” the disproportionate number of Pictou-area residents at the lodge? Confirmations bias is our natural tendency to notice data that confirms a theory we’re considering, while overlooking conflicting data.

What demographic factors might be at play in Pictou County cancer rates? The Canadian Cancer Society cites Nova Scotia’s aging population as a “key factor” in cancer rates here.

Which of the 200+ types of cancer are patients at the Lodge being treated for? During the late 20th century, Industrial Cape Breton experienced high rates of cervical cancer. Some people tried to blame this on the Sydney Steel Plant, the Coke Ovens, or the Tar Ponds. But cervical cancer is a sexually transmitted disease, caused by human papilloma viruses (HPVs), with no indication of an environmental component, so the alleged industrial link didn’t stand up.

What confounding factors might contribute to high cancer rates in Pictou County? What are the rates of poverty and unemployment, both strongly correlated with ill health? What are smoking rates in the county? What other industries operate there?

What proportion of Pictou’s cancer patients work at the Northern Pulp mill? If noxious emissions are implicated in the cancer rates, plant workers would be the most susceptible, because their exposure to the fumes would be orders of magnitude higher than residents of the county in general.

The Northern Pulp mill has a disgusting history, and it continues to spread environmental blight in the air, water, and land around the plant. The province has been, by times, a co-conspirator in this blight and a feckless regulator. I would be happy to see the mill close, and the mess it created cleaned up.

But I think public health decisions should be based on evidence, not speculation.

A bad plant gets a dubious knock

Boat Harbour

A Gail Lethbridge column in today’s Herald claims the noxious Northern Pulp plant on the south side of Pictou Harbour is harming the health of Pictou County residents. Specifically, causing cancer.

Pictou County has the highest cancer rates in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia has some of the highest cancer rates in Canada. Studies have not established consistent and conclusive links between mill emissions and cancer, but chemicals in mill production and pollution are identified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Cancer Research.

And anecdotal evidence of respiratory problems, skin conditions, cardiovascular disease and cancers suffered by residents near the mill have led local doctors to identify mill emissions as a likely culprit.

The history of government and industry chicanery in the establishment of the former Scott Paper mill, and its record of environmental degradation, are scandalous, but Lethbridge’s health claims fall somewhere between tenuous and spurious.

I recognize her piece was not a peer-reviewed scientific journal article, but a newspaper column produced on deadline. Nevertheless, she provides no citations for startling claims about cancer rates in Pictou and Nova Scotia, nor does she indicate which of the 200+ cancers she is referring to. Lots of chemicals in everyday use are “identified as carcinogenic,” or toxic, but without knowing the dose, this information is meaningless. Dose is always crucial in evaluating such claims.

Lethbridge acknowledges that “[unidentified] studies have not established… links between mill emissions and cancer,” but goes on to cite “anecdotal evidence” of a hodgepodge of maladies that, she says, “[unnamed] local doctors” attribute to the plant. To state the obvious, studies that fail to establish something are not evidence of that thing. Anecdotes are notoriously misleading sources of medical conclusions, because they are prone to observer bias, cherry-picking, and inadequate sample size. When you hear, “anecdotal evidence” in connection with medical scares, best to think, “meaningless and probably misleading evidence.”

The Northern Pulp plant is a blight. Aside from the grotesque environmental damage it has visited on Pictou County, it is an iconic symbol of how the white race has mistreated, and continues to mistreat, Native Canadians. I will raise a lusty cheer when it finally closes. But is it causing cancer, heart attacks, or plantar warts?

Show us the evidence.

Fear of flying over the Ukraine

James Fallows has a couple of great pieces, here and here, on why the world should not blame Malaysia Airlines for flying over the eastern Ukraine while hostilities were underway 33,000 feet below. The nub of his argument is that restrictions on flight routes are rightly and necessarily the province of governments not airlines, and Flight 17 rigorously observed the limited restrictions governments had laid down—the equivalent of driving 63 mph in a 65 mph zone.

Equally important, “[A]ir transportation, like most other modern systems, could not operate if it fortified itself against every conceivable peril.” This is a lesson we forgot in the wake of 9/11, which is why a single attempted shoe bombing led to a decade of shoes-off orders.

The failure understand this essential fact of life—that we cannot achieve zero risk in any aspect of our existence—is one of the major problems facing contemporary society. Among many other things, it’s why young women and  men arrive at university having never made an autonomous decision about their personal safety. It’s why we’re outraged to discover that the second worst hurricane to strike Nova Scotia in 100 years produced power and telephone outages that lasted more than a few hours. It’s why the CBC and other broadcasters debase their journalistic standards with exaggerated warnings about trivial weather events, urging us to stay in our beds with the covers drawn up at the first sign of flurries. It’s why we suddenly  have 10-20 snow days a year in a province where children had previously made their way to school in snowstorms for 100 uneventful years.

Fallows includes this useful chart from Spiegel showing the number of flights by various airlines in the week before Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down:


Malaysia Airlines was in the middle of the pack.

Further evidence of Canada’s subpar marine protection

Yesterday I published two maps showing impressive efforts by nations large and small to establish massive marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. A third map revealed Canada’s contrastingly anemic effort. Because this is not my field, I added this caution:

This is a complicated topic. It’s possible the comparisons above, in terms of the level and type of protection, do not present a fair picture. I don’t have the knowledge or background to evaluate that. But plenty of people in Halifax do, and I’d love to hear from them.

Hear from them I did. Chris Miller of Halifax, National Conservation Biologist with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, passed along this chart showing the protection effort of the 10 nations with the largest ocean estates. Canada placed dead last:

Marine Protected Ares Compared

These numbers predate President Obama’s recent pledge to significantly increase the already substantial MPA around Hawaii. Here is the outlook in map format, rounded to the nearest percent:

Percentage of Ocean Estate Protected

Both charts appear in a detailed assessment CPAWS published last month [PDF], beautifully illustrated and definitely worth a look.

Miller added this useful comment:

As with any assessment of this nature, there are intrinsic challenges with comparing very different jurisdictions… such as Canada, which has very few MPAs, but those we do are well enforced…versus countries that may have substantial MPAs, but ineffective enforcement (paper parks).

The trend toward really big MPAs being established is quite exciting…and definitely the direction the world needs to be moving.  Canada is lagging behind by doing one site at a time, and not clearing the path toward more effective and speedy implementation.

Susanna Fuller, longtime ocean activist with the Ecology Action Centre (and longtime friend of Contrarian) offers this snapshot of ocean protection in Canada:

  • Less than two percent protected in official marine protected areas
  • Commitment to the target of 10 percent by 2020 set by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, but we don’t expect Canada to meet it
  • It takes about eight years to get a new MPA
  • Some new funding in the National Conservation Plan, which may get us a few new area closures
  • Lots of opposition from fishing industry, and I don’t think an overall respect for the fact that, just as we need terrestrial wilderness areas, we also need marine ones.
  • Needless to say, this government is not very proactive on marine protection, and has focused on economic exploitation
  • Australia has set up a plan for a huge marine reserve system; US has made good efforts as well, although the conservation community questions (rightly so) the efficacy of the marine sanctuary and national monument programs.
  • Always problems with enforcement, but those are getting easier with technology.
  • In Canada, we have a piecemeal system of closures from various activities (fishing mostly, and some shipping) but for the most part no comprehensive system or planning.
  • Efforts to do this are undermined by industry and in some cases provinces who are most interested in off shore energy.

An anonymous reader objected to my citing the United Kingdom’s establishment of an MPA around the Chagos Archipelago as an example of enlightened marine area stewardship. He linked to an opinion piece by Guardian writer Fred Pearce decrying the reserve as a case of environmental colonialism:

How do you greenwash a large airforce base? A base that is responsible for bombing nearby countries, and which was built on an island you confiscated from residents who are now living in exile on the other side of the world?

Easy. You announce the creation of a giant nature reserve which will be off-limits to its former inhabitants. Not to the military, of course. That might create complications. But the people-free zone will cover the islands and oceans all around. Then, if you’re really clever, you get the world’s premier network of conservation scientists to endorse your plan.

An activist involved in the Chagos protection responded, also anonymously:

Well, this is a very old story, and totally one-sided. It comes from the notion that you can’t have a marine reserve until you resolve all outstanding issues. [Opponents] did everything to undermine the process, despite the fact that a fair number of Chagossians supported the idea. Our line was whoever currently has it must properly protect it, and in the meantime, if governments resolve these issues then that is their concern.

Regardless of the colonial politics muddying that situation, it is beyond reasonable argument that Canada’s ocean stewardship has been dreadful. We fished out the Northern Cod, a resource of biblical proportions, while government cheered on the industrial fishery, an event that ranks with the extinction of the bison and the passenger pigeon in the annals of environmental crime. Yet it seems we are still putting the shortsighted interests of the fishing industry head of the national interest in protecting our ocean treasures.

Gannets, gannets, gannets—St. Peter’s Bay Division

Back in April, when most of the ground was still deep in snow, and migrating birds had to concentrate their foraging on the few open patches, an enormous swarm of dark-eyed juncos stormed through Boularderie Island. Driving between Kempt Head and Ross Ferry, I estimate I saw more than 1,000 in separate flocks of 20-50.

A similar nature spectacular unfolded this week along harbours and inlets where northern gannets gathered in great numbers to feed on schooling mackerel, and perhaps the smaller fish the mackerel themselves were chasing.

Marty MacDougall captured the spectacle and posted it to YouTube:

St. Peter's Bay



Because gannets spend most of their lives at sea, or in hard-to-reach cliffside nesting colonies, we don’t encounter them that often. When we do, from a distance, non-birders may overlook them as “just another gull.” In fact, they are among our most beautiful birds.


H/T: Laurie M-T

Protected ocean reserves: How does Canada stack up?

National Geographic just posted a story on evolving plans to place large parts of the Pacific Ocean into protected marine reserves. Writer Monica Medina stresses the importance of size in establishing these protected zones.

When it comes to getting the greatest benefit out of no-take marine reserves, according to leading scientists, the bigger, the better.  Large ocean reserves allow for an entire ecosystem to be protected—which is particularly important for species in the Pacific with long migration routes and widely dispersed feeding patterns like the endangered blue whale and the black-footed albatross.

I was surprised at the scope of existing and planned protected areas in the Pacific. President Barack Obama has pledged to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which currently protects 215,000 sq. km., to as much as 2 million sq. km. Even more impressively, several tiny Pacific nations, including the Cook Islands, Palau, and Kiribati, last month announced plans for new or expanded no-take reserves within their territorial waters.

Pacific Reserves

Four years ago, Great Britain acted to protect 640,000 sq. km. of the Indian Ocean surrounding Chagos Island:

Indian Ocean

So how does Canada, with the world’s longest coastline, stack up? See for yourself:

Parcs Canada

Total marine protected area, including provincial reserves and protected portions of the Great Lakes: 65,000 sq. kilometres. That’s one-eighth of the ocean area protected by the Republic of Palau, population 21,000. And here I thought Canada was a world leader in the creation of marine protected areas. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society has a somewhat dated rundown on Canadian ocean areas in need of protection.

This is a complicated topic. It’s possible the comparisons above, in terms of the level and type of protection, do not present a fair picture. I don’t have the knowledge or background to evaluate that. But plenty of people in Halifax do, and I’d love to hear from them.

Three simple ways to improve medicare

Family physician Danielle Martin, founder of Canadian Doctors for Medicare, offers three straightforward ideas to improve Canadian health care.

Martin’s Rx: (1) Bring down the cost of the 20  highest impact generic drugs, which are currently priced in Canada far above world levels; (2) Heed provincial medical society cautions about medical interventions of dubious value; and (3) Get serious about fighting poverty, with tax-administered low-income income assistance.

Martin, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, and at U. of T.’s Institute of Health Policy, Management and Information, won praise in March for her effective response to hostile questions from a Republican US Senator at a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging.

H/T: Dr. Monika Dutt

Two smug journalists decry prostitution – Updated

Two prominent columnists, one Canadian, one USian, have weighed in bravely on the moral depravity of prostitution. In Canada, it was the Globe and Mail’s Peggy Wente:

WENTEMany sassy young progressive commentators (including women) assume that prostitution is like marijuana – that the moral issues are as outdated as hoop skirts, and anyone who thinks otherwise is an uptight reactionary old prude. After all, women should have a right to do whatever they want with their own bodies, and what happens between two consenting adults is nobody else’s business. Prostitutes are no different from piano teachers, so get over it! They sound like Hugh Hefner circa 1962. Personally, I eagerly await the day when these women’s husbands come home and say, “Sorry I’m late, honey, I stopped off on the way for a blow job.” I am sure they’ll think nothing of it.

In the US, Bloomberg’s Chris Thompson attempted to conjure the mindset of a wealthy Google executive arranging a fatal assignation with a call girl:

You’re a guy in your early 50s, with five children from your wife of 17 years. You make a pretty good living at one of Silicon Valley’s biggest names, buying what you want when you want it, but, as we all know, you’re still not satisfied.

ForrestHayes1Because men your age aren’t like they used to be. Age and maturity stretch and bend now into different dimensions than when our dads or granddads were that age. Those successful enough to rise to the top at relatively young ages tend to stay younger. They’re fitter and more playful, and they often emerge from a social scene where impetuousness brought delight and moral strictures were diluted by a modern mindset.

So if you’ve got a yacht in Santa Cruz to which you can squire a high-end call girl, why not? These games and pleasures are your secret rewards for your achievements and they keep you young. You don’t do this all the time, and it’s not like you don’t love your wife and kids. It’s just that there’s a side of you that, while it will never die, you still have to keep alive.

You’ve seen this professional before and trust her, and tonight she’s lookin’ alright-alright. You could probably do without the tattoos and dark eyes/gothy thing, but she’s probably not especially set on fire by your well-fed midsection, khaki Dockers and the job they did on you at the Hair Cuttery either.

Doesn’t matter. You’re here to party, you’re comfortable with each other, and tonight she’s brought a little bit of fun in her purse. You probably won’t get far into it — a few grams of smack is more than you’re in shape for, but one or two hits always make the rest of the proceedings feel so…pleasurable.

As usual, she’ll do the fixin’s and the work for you, and the first rush — it’s always a thrill, but this time it feels different. You dissolve into the comfy swivel chair down in the yacht’s galley and wait for the stardust to start falling softly, but this time it’s coming fast, and now you’re a little short of breath.

Was that — ? What was. What.

You were already asleep and producing unpleasant bodily functions when she threw back the last gulp of wine, set a few things right and hopped off the boat. It wasn’t how you expected to go out, and you wouldn’t know how to explain it to those waiting at home for some word of your whereabouts, who relied on you, but it was an accident, an honest mistake, and there’s just a side to you your wife and kids will never know:

The victim of a second-degree murder.

I hate to spoil the fun, but both these pieces reek of middle-class smugness I was happy to leave behind in the 1950s.

I suppose it’s possible some “sassy young progressive” advocates for prostitutes’ rights have argued prostitutes are “no different from piano teachers,” but if so, I missed it. What I have heard them say is that prostitutes want a safe, warm, clean place to work indoors, and freedom from hypocritical, sexist law enforcement that places them at risk of imprisonment, bodily harm, rape, and death. Could Peggy pause her pandering to the peanut gallery long enough to tell us whether she disagrees? And if so, why?

Does Chris Thompson really think yacht-owning men of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation were were both morally superior and less prone to indulge in prostitution than our crowd? Bloomberg’s value is supposed to rest on evidence and data. Here I see only self-congratulatory righteousness.

[UPDATE] Journalist Bethany Horne points out what I missed: Wente’s apocryphal “sassy young progressive” was actually a gibe at fellow Globe columnist Tabatha Southey, who wrote a nuanced analysis of Bill C-36 June 6, under the headline, “Don’t piano teachers deserve the same ‘protection’ as prostitutes?”

Horne calls Wente’s sneer “a crass oversimplification” of Southey’s column, which did not equate sex work with teaching piano, as Wente implied, but rather looked at how the health, safety, and wellbeing of piano teachers would be affected if a government bill treated them the way the Conservative’s Bill C-36 would treat sex workers.  It’s a fair question. After all, it’s called the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.

Red state, blue state; soccer state, NASCAR state

Have you noticed the befuddlement of North America’s sports broadcasting establishment over the huge audiences tuning in to the World Cup? It began with CBC honchos scratching their heads over the vast outpouring of interest in… soccer? Thirty million Canadians have tuned in since mid-June. The top rated soccer match drew barely 500,000 fewer fans than the Stanley Cup final.

“I don’t know why the CBC is so surprised,” an annoyed soccer fan complained  to me two weeks ago. “For the last 25 years, more Canadian children have played soccer than any other sport. Those kids are grown-ups now.  What does the CBC think they want to watch?”

Then there was the bizarre, cringe inducing attack on soccer popularity by the American right’s favourite Kewpie Doll provocateur, Ann Coulter, who denounced soccer’s rising popularity as “a sign of the nation’s moral decay.”

[In soccer], there are no heroes, no losers, no accountability, and no child’s fragile self-esteem is bruised… Liberal moms like soccer because it’s a sport in which athletic talent finds so little expression that girls can play with boys. No serious sport is co-ed, even at the kindergarten level.

I don’t believe I have ever recommended an Ann Coulter column, but if you haven’t read this one, you really should experience its breathtaking, gobsmacking awfulness.

So it’s not just Canadians, those closet socialists north of the 49th, who are tuning in to what the rest of the world calls “football.” Americans are doing so in record numbers. Some 18.22 million tuned in to the United States’ 2-2 tie against Portugal, easily outdrawing the 2013 World Series or the NBA finals.

All this caused ESPN to wonder out loud whether “America’s love of soccer [was] real or a fad?”

[T]ides roll in and tides roll out. Has the United States truly fallen in love with football or just the World Cup in a friendlier time slot? Is the unprecedented exuberance we have witnessed around our game long-lasting or, like that for pogo sticks and hula hoops, is it a mere fad?

To find out whether their countrymen were really serious about this foreign soccer stuff, the sports network turned to its pollster, who produced a heat map showing the level of soccer fandom in the lower 48 states.


Now I don’t know about you, but I looked at that map and thought, “Where have I seen that before?” And indeed I had, in a heat map of Red States vs. Blue States, depicting Americans who identify themselves as liberal vs. those who call themselves conservative:


The colours are inverted, of course, but otherwise, the maps are strikingly similar. Oregon, California, Vermont, and Massachusetts love soccer, and they love liberal Democrats too. Alabama, Mississippi, and the Badlands of North Dakota will have no truck or trade with foreign football, but they’re happy to break bread with the Tea Party.

In a fascinating essay in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart argues that Coulter is both closer to the truth than we might imagine, and right to fear the rising popularity of soccer.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that young Americans disproportionately like soccer. The average age of Americans who call baseball their favorite sport is 53. Among Americans who like football best, it’s 46. Among Americans who prefer soccer, by contrast, the average age is only 37.

Beside Hispanics and the young, the third major pro-soccer constituency is liberals. They’re willing to embrace a European sport for the same reason they’re willing to embrace a European-style health care system: because they see no inherent value in America being an exception to the global rule.

In a week when five aging male Catholics on the US Supreme Court sought to limit women’s access to contraceptives, citing the religious beliefs of corporations, the rise of soccer—er, football—is a hopeful development, even for this unreconstructed, sexagenarian baseball fan.

The putter

A beautiful five-minute film about putter Cliff Denton, who puts together scissors at Ernest Wright & Sons of Sheffield, England, one of the last remaining hand manufacturer of scissors.

The Putter was produced and directed by Shaun Bloodworth.

H/T: Conor Friedersdorf

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