Mustard Gas in the Bras d’Or Lakes


Browsing a local flea market might just change the perspective one has for the future of people living around the Bras d’Or Lakes in Cape Breton. Myles Kehoe, an antique dealer from Cape Breton was searching for something unusual for his store.

He just happened to find old maps at a flea market, and requested to purchase all of the old maps. The maps belonged to an old gentleman that served in the Royal Canadian Navy in the 1940s; these maps indicated old secret military dumping locations on the Cape Breton coastlines, in Kempt Head near Baddeck and Johnstown near Chapel Island in the interior of the Bras d’Or lakes. These barrels of chemical gases were dumped off ships returning from Europe after the First and Second World Wars ended. One particular chemical used during the European Wars was Mustard gas, a biological chemical that killed thousands of people in the battlefields. According to military history, Canada became a world leader in the development, testing and production of both chemical and biological weapons. Components of Mustard gas had the ability to bind irreversibly to DNA functioning, and predispose a person to cancers or birth defects in their offspring.

Studies indicate that mustard gas remains unchanged after storage on land for periods exceeding 80 years. “For years, I have been concerned about how these underwater stores of chemical warfare agents and how they may be affecting the overall health of the marine ecosystem, marine species and the local people living around the Bras d’Or lakes,” says Myles Kehoe.

It is unknown how many tons of these chemicals were disposed of in the Bras d’Or lakes during the 1940s until 1945, but two locations are known for a fact, which are Johnstown, and Kempt Head. These two dumping sites are close to Mi’kmaq communities, which at the time mostly all Mi’kmaq members depended on the natural resources for survival. There is no scientific research to indicate the effects it had on the environmental eco-system, or geographical areas.

In the 1940s the ocean was regarded as a mysterious place, little was known about the ocean’s depths; their mindset was that once it is out of sight, an object was out of mind. Even today many are still pioneering the waters through scientific technology and in spite of everything they are still recovering vital information. On the coastlines of Cape Breton, the ocean was used as a dumping ground; in 1945, Canada and Britain declared their stockpiles of chemical weapons and biological weapons as surplus and were disposing them in the ocean.

Mustard gas is a liquid at room temperature but turns into thick goo in the cold waters of the oceans bottom, but the temperature in the Bras d’Or Lakes changes with each season and the changes of these gases were unknown. Brief exposure to this Mustard gas will cause the skin to blister or a person could suffer from cancer or birth defects in their off spring.

“Researchers over the past 10 years indicated to me that there might be over a 100 charted and uncharted military dumpsites both on and off the coastlines of Atlantic Canada,” says Myles Kehoe.

* Barry Bernard is the Education and Awareness Coordinator at the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources (UINR). Mi’kmaq-Maliseet Nations News, October 2002

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