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Quebec area where cancer rates are 80 times higher to be studied

It's been more than 15 years since her husband died of a brain tumour, but Candide Bélanger feels she may finally get some answers about why he died.

Jacques Trottier died in 1995 at the age of 62. The couple had lived for 17 years next to the Valcartier military base in Shannon, where many experts believe the drinking water was laced with trichloroethylene or TCE. The solvent, which strips grease from metal, was used by a munitions manufacturer on the base for more than 40 years.

Last week the Quebec City regional public health agency announced it had hired eight international experts to examine more than 500 cases of cancer in the area and look at what happened.

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"My husband, who was a school principal in Shannon, used to drink huge amounts of water every day. We never suspected the drinking water was contaminated," said Ms. Bélanger, 76.

Isabelle Goupil-Sormany, a spokeswoman for the public-health agency, said the study will concentrate on brain tumours.

Claude Juneau, a Shannon family doctor who has demanded such a study for more than a decade, said it was about time public-health officials take the community's concerns seriously.

In 1995, Dr. Juneau was taken aback by the death of Mr. Trottier, a close personal friend. He began looking into the high number of cancer cases in the community and, in December of 2000, started researching TCE. Dr. Juneau went door to door in the community, finding some neighbourhoods where almost every household reported cancer cases or cancer-related deaths.

Along with 10 other Shannon residents, Dr. Juneau set up a community group and in 2003 launched a class-action suit against the federal government and two private companies. More than 3,000 current and former residents are now part of the suit, which involves more than 500 cancer cases, including 200 deaths.

"The expected rate for brain cancer is one in every 20,000. With a population of 5,000 Shannon had 20 brain-cancer cases. That's 80 times the normal expected rate," Dr. Juneau said.

There was also a high incidence of at least eight other types of cancers that residents suspected was caused by the TCE-contaminated water.

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During the class-action case, the federal government argued that there was no scientific evidence that the cancer cases were caused by TCE in the water supply. Ottawa built part of its case on three studies undertaken by the Quebec City public health agency that concluded that TCE levels in the water supply weren't high enough to warrant any concerns.

Last year Quebec Superior Court judge Bernard Godbout concluded that TCE had in fact contaminated the water but ordered that only those who lived in the most hard-hit neighbourhoods be compensated.

That ruling will be tackled by the Quebec Court of Appeal next year, but Dr. Juneau hopes that the new study can be completed in time to show that a lot more residents should be compensated.

"From the beginning the public-health agency has always challenged our belief that there was a higher rate of cancer in Shannon that anywhere else in Quebec. Finally we will be proven right," said Dr. Juneau, who is now 80 years old. "But you know I probably won't live long enough to see the end of it."

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More


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