Arsenic data removed by Arruda in 2019 was known locally, former public health director says

Quebec Premier Francois Legault appraises the ending session at a news conference, Friday, June 10, 2022 at the legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Dr. Horacio Arruda defended himself of against suggestions he hid anything by withdrawing an appendix reporting a much higher incidence of lung cancer in Rouyn-Noranda than elsewhere in Quebec and invoking the arsenic emitted by the Horne Smelter as an aggravating factor.

On the contrary, he claimed that many stakeholders, including citizen representatives, had read the appendix before it was withdrawn with the agreement of the regional director of public health.

Arruda had to explain himself in a virtual press conference on Wednesday, following the controversy triggered by the revelations of Radio-Canada on the withdrawal of the annex in question. He said the appendix was withdrawn because the biomonitoring study it was part of focused on children's health and he was concerned that the information would "distract from the important messages we needed to get across to children."

Instead, he said, the adult data should be set aside and incorporated into a study of the health risks to adults from arsenic emissions from Glencore's Horne Smelter.

He echoed the explanation given by both the office of Health Minister Lionel Carmant earlier this week and by Premier François Legault on Wednesday that the premier had not interfered with the report and had not asked that the annex be removed.

The drafting of the report on adult health, which includes the controversial annex, has been entrusted to Quebec' public health institute, the Institut national de santé publique (INSPQ), and its publication is imminent, Arruda assured.

On another note, Arruda had called the media as public health director in 2019 and indicated in a follow-up meeting on the study that he was acting as an advisor to the Junior Minister of Health, Lionel Carmant, and, therefore, under his hat as assistant deputy minister.

Dr. Arruda acknowledged that the dual role of Director of Public Health and Assistant Deputy Minister creates a perception among citizens of a conflict of interest between public health needs and political interests. He argued that the position of Assistant Deputy Minister is more administrative than political and expressed the view that wearing both hats allows for greater influence with "some independence," but at the cost of a perceived conflict of interest.

The solution to this contradiction, however, lies in the hands of government, he said.

Coroner Gehane Kamel's first recommendation after her inquiry into the deaths in nursing homes during the first wave of the pandemic was to "review the role of the director of public health so that his or her functions are exercised independently and without political constraints."

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on June 22, 2022. 

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