James Thompson pulls open the barbed wire gate leading to a grassy pasture and, with two mongrel dogs at his heels, steps inside to inspect his 50 head of Hereford cattle, all dying slowly from fluoride poisoning. His herd stands in minature; stunted, only waist-high. Calves are sometimes stillborn. The cows, after four years, can’t chew hay because their teeth, like chalk, have been ground down to the gums. “As soon as they start getting skinny I sell them,” says Thompson. “Otherwise they just starve.” He points across the river to the Reynolds Metals Company, discharging 75 pounds of fluoride (a chemical pollutant) per hour into the air, and shakes his head. “And I helped build that place,” he sighs.
Since 1959, when the Reynolds aluminum plant first started spewing thick clouds of fluoride smoke from its tall stacks on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, near Massena, New York, life has changed for the 4,200 Akwesasne Indians of Cornwall Island, Canada. Akwesasne is a Mohawk word, meaning “where the partridge drums” – the drumming being the beat of its wings against a hollow log, calling its mate. But during the last 20 years, with more than 25 million pounds of fluoride falling on Cornwall Island, the partridges have ceased to drum and have flown away. The bees have also disappeared, like other insects. Once majestic white pine now stand along the shores like wooden skeletons.
More recently, amid fears that not only plants and animals, but also the people of St. Regis reserve were being poisoned by fluoride, the new Federal health minister, David Crombie, has called for a full-scale study of the Cornwall area. “I didn’t have a nickel’s worth of conversation about the need for such a study,” said Crombie after a day-long meeting with the tribe. “It was just a question of how.”
Pollution has long plagued the St. Regis Indians, whose first recorded presence there, according to Jesuit missionaries, dates from 1753. Federal health officials call it “the most polluted reserve in Canada.” The tribe can’t fish, because mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) have contaminated the sturgeon and northern pike. Swimming is unsafe, since raw sewage is dumped directly into the St. Lawrence. But the biggest problem is the fluoride pollution. When the Indians first suspected in 1973 that contaminated air might be harming their health, they entered a long, complicated series of negotiations to have a study made. Their efforts were clouded by the geographic location of the reserve – because it straddled Ontario, Quebec and New York state, bureaucrats were quick to throw the buck across the border. Talks with Canadian federal officials finally just broke down. In desperation, the St. Regis people requested their own independent studies.
The first results came back in April, when Lennart Krook, an American pathologist at Cornell University, published the final results of a two-year cattle study on Cornwal Island. Economically, the losses were so high that many farmers had given up raising cattle. Back in 1959, there were 750 cattle in 39 barns. Today there are only eight barns and fewer than 100 cattle. He also interviewed men like Elijah Benedict, an 82-year-old Mohawk farmer whose cattle must be destroyed after four years because of a tooth disease known as fluorosis . “It’s pitiful after that to see them chewing hay,” says Benedict. “They seem to be rolling it in their mouths. In winter, some of them just lap a little water and walk away.”
Yet the financial losses are the least of the tribe’s concerns with fluorides. This July, the band released the levels of fluoride concentrations in the tooth ash of the island’s residents. All ranged above normal, from a nine-year-old girl with 170 parts per million of fluoride to the 37-year-old chief of the tribe, with 250 parts per million. Tooth decay is not the only fear, since fluoride accumulates in the bones and affects the kidneys, lungs and thyroid glands. “There is enough data so that I wouldn’t expose my own children to airborne fluorides,” says Bertram Carnow, director of occupational medicine at the University of Illinois, who co-authored, with his wife, a preliminary health report on Cornwall Island. The tribe’s chief, Lawrence Francis, whose own two children had high dental concentrations of fluoride, is even more forthright. “Until this is settled, I’m declaring psychological warfare. There’s no way Reynolds will win unless they stop this pollution.”
Yet Reynolds is breaking no laws, being well within the current New York state limits, even though its emissions over a 70-day period exceed Canadian standards by 99 per cent. Any solution could be years away. The first step came last month, when Crombie, a newly appointed fresh face, broke the long silence between federal officials and the band and instigated the long-awaited health study. Once completed, its findings ill be subject to rigorous scrutiny, either before an American court of law or the International Joint Commission, where attempts to alter the New York state law must be made. The St. Regis people are determined to stop the pollution, not merely to be awarded compensation, as 22 American farmers living near the plant are currently receiving for their cattle. Money doesn’t matter much to them right now. Henry Lickers, a native-born biologist at St. Regis says: “They can pay us $80 billion, but if we can’t live here, what good is it? This is our ancestral home. How do you compensate for the loss of that kind of heritage?”