The head of Toronto Public Health (TPH) has put a gun to her head, prompting outrage after a Sun news opinion piece was picked up by other media outlets.
Monday’s piece, written by vice-chair Yvette Wladyka, said that neither science nor human rights organisations were advocating for an end to what she called the “toxic discharge” of vapours emitted by hydrogen cyanide-powered water fountains in several government buildings.
Rather, the Guardian understands that Wladyka wanted to simply make a case for why TPH, in part due to scientific evidence, wants Canadians to work to keep mercury-eating micro-organisms out of drinking water, with which she has particular concern.
This leaves open the question of why Wladyka – and the rest of the TPH team, who did not respond to interview requests – felt the need to pursue it so publically and so directly.
Q&A What is hydrogen cyanide and why do people think it’s poison? Show Hide Hydrogen cyanide is a relatively new substance that has been around for a few thousand years. Originally, it was used to produce explosives and dry-cleaning fluids but it is now used primarily as a dry cleaning solvent. Its immediate dangers are hallucinations, fevers and headaches caused by a build-up of tiny gas bubbles in the blood. Although there are fewer than 10 documented cases of human deaths caused by hydrogen cyanide ingestion, there are some 200 to 300 cases reported annually. The vast majority of poison centre calls come from pet owners who mistakenly believe their pet has eaten dried-out edible hydrogen cyanide, while it is also known to be spread by non-human carriers who commonly acquire it through contact with food or water. Source: The alkaloid also occurs naturally in some types of lichen, it can be emitted from some fish excrement, and even from its benignly named cousin, chloroform.
Further, it is perhaps the case that the government did not have the resources to respond to the rising number of calls to the poison control centre it receives about the contamination, nor has the public complained to TPH about those fountains, in the way they have about rooftop air-conditioning units, reports the Guardian’s environment correspondent, Owen Bowcott.
Insofar as the article provoked controversy it appears to be because of its use of dehumanising language to deny the toxicity of something that can clearly lead to death. In a letter to the editor, one person wrote that “queer and transgender people suffer from hydrochloric acid poisoning”, while the location of the fountains’ contamination was ridiculed as “crematorium silver” and “purple anthracite”, while references to mental illness were widely scorned.
This rhetoric, some say, also makes the assault on human rights one of the least salubrious things it does, when it does happen.
A spokeswoman for TPH told the Guardian that Wladyka had “a well-known passion for the environment and fighting against the harmful effects of industrial pollution”, but added that the piece was meant to “promote discourse”, not “ideologise the science”.
It is also possible that people criticised the article so vociferously because they were so disinclined to accept the position that TPH had accepted – that the hazard posed by the water fountains was not, as long as people do not inhale vapours, the least significant thing about their situation.
It’s not a ban on writing about bathrooms at all, it’s just the language that put me in mind of a person with a gun to their head
It’s also true that, just weeks ago, TPH sent out a press release about its new campaign on contaminated water, aiming to raise awareness of the poisonings being caused by mercury bacteria in Canadian drinking water. Some who read that press release could reasonably have interpreted TPH’s silence on the water fountains to be concern over mercury contamination rather than fear of exploding fountains.
It is also possible that Wladyka’s critics were more concerned that her statement was downright wrong, rather than using racist language to intimidate people into silence.
To David Kearney, professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Saskatchewan and an expert in mercury poisoning