The Lung Association of Nova Scotia says it's been receiving calls from people expressing health concerns over what's being belched out of the Northern Pulp mill, despite the provincial Environment Minister's assertions that the emissions pose no imminent risk to human health.

"You come to know very quickly that when you can't breathe, nothing else matters. Nothing else matters. Lungs are not like broken bones where if you damage them, they'll repair," said Louis Brill, president and CEO of the Lung Association of Nova Scotia.

"If there's any damage being done because of this current situation — and I say 'if' — this is damage that will not come back, it will affect people for a lifetime."

Brill said people with existing lung conditions suffer the most. 

"There are a couple of things that are certain — lung cancer rates, the rates of [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and asthma are particularly high in Nova Scotia," he said.

"In fact, we have some of the highest rates in all of Canada and it is well-known that Pictou has some of the highest rates in Nova Scotia for all of those respiratory illnesses."

But, Brill stressed, he can't attribute those statistics directly to Northern Pulp.

Particulate tests 78% above allowable levels

Particulate levels that create smog get tested twice a year by the province.

The latest test, completed in November, showed levels 78 per cent above what's allowed near the mill in Abercrombie Point. The levels have not been tested since.

A new round of air testing at the mill is scheduled for Aug. 18 and could take six weeks to process.

Brill said he'd like to see testing done even sooner because even short-term exposure to dangerous pollution can have lasting effects.

"Over the last number of weeks and months, the people of Pictou have spoken through the media, directly to us at the Lung Association that there's been a change — that there's more smoke, that there's more smog, it's darker," he said.

"They talk about tasting the sulphur more. They talk about even feeling the pollution more, so I think that it would be fair to say that the chance of 78 per cent over the allowable limit number is worse."

Brill said the sooner there are complete and comprehensive numbers available, the sooner the province can act. He admits there are no easy decisions when it comes to what to do with the mill.

'Make hard decisions'

"Maybe not just the government, maybe we as a people will have to then make hard decisions, some very hard decisions," he said.

"Perhaps the results will be that the composition is benign and there's not a particular health risk and perhaps then it would be appropriate to wait 10 months for when the precipitator will be put in place and the particulate matter will be decreased

"If, on the other hand, those tests show that there are harmful product — whether there is an abundance of particulate matter or carcinogens, or other harmful materials — that we, as a people, make the hard decisions required to protect the health of Nova Scotians."

Brill advises those in Pictou County with existing lung health conditions to be vigilant with taking their medications and follow the advice of their doctors. He said if there's any change in a person's condition, they should not wait to see a doctor.