Don’t drink the water

Jane O’Hara June 22 1981

Don’t drink the water

Jane O’Hara June 22 1981

Don’t drink the water


Jane O’Hara

On a one-kilometre stretch of road that runs as straight as a plumb line through the heart of Southwestern Ontario’s Harwich Township, seven families in seven white frame houses won’t drink the water. Last summer, the well, which was as pure as a two-year-old’s conscience when Charlie Jacobs started drinking from it in 1910, began smelling swampy. When his neighbor, Nellie Russchen, swallowed some water one day, it felt like acid running from her throat to her stomach. When she washed her face with the water, it took the skin off her eyelids. Her son got rashes from it. Her husband blames his kidney problems on it. “I tell you I was walking around half dead because of it,” says Nellie. “And when the government came to test it they said it was tolerable. I’d like to know tolerable to whom?”

At 75, Charlie Jacobs is not a man to jump to conclusions but, coming from an age when it was as wrong to spoil a man’s well as to steal his cattle, he doesn’t mind pointing a finger. This time it points to a harmlesslooking grassy hill about 2,300 metres from Jacobs’ back stoop, a topographical aberration in the landscape which otherwise looks like a tabletop. The hill wasn’t there when Jacobs’ father started farming in what is known as the Golden Acres. The land was bought in the ’60s and since then has become a chemical compost heap for millions of litres of liquid and solid industrial waste. Some of the wastes, such as known carcinogens benzene and toluene (both industrial solvents), have percolated through the soil and into the aquifer—underground layers of rock, sand or gravel that hold water and feed the wells (see chart page 27 ). In 1977, Jacobs first thought the dump might be leaking poisons when a drainage ditch started filling with an orange oily liquid. “It killed everything in the ditch,” recalls Jacobs. “Fish were jumping to get out of it.” Jacobs’ wife, Fern, now hauls water from nearby Blenheim. “After 50 years on a farm you get used to natural disasters,” she says. “It’s mother nature. But that thing is manmade. I figure if God had wanted a mountain there, he’d have put it there.”

The purity of drinking water can no _ longer be taken for granted

Unlike the Jacobses, most Canadians do not have open-sore dump sites in their backyards to remind them of how chemical contaminants get into their drinking water. But across this country—which idly boasts nine per cent of the world’s fresh water—they are there. Odorless. Colorless. Tasteless, for the most part. Often they are present only in parts per billion. Toxic, in some cases. Carcinogenic, in others. Mixing and mingling to form new chemical cocktails that are as yet unnamed and beneath detection by the most hair-trigger of water-testing apparatuses. Of the health threat these pose to the public, William Strachan, a chemist with the National Water Research Institute in Winnipeg, says: “These things won’t knock you dead. But they could produce genetic effects which won’t crop up for 20 years.” Adds Professor John Last, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa: “We have no scientific proof that what is getting into our drinking water is harmful. We have our doubts, but perhaps the best we can say is that something nasty is happening.”

Increasingly, Canadians are losing their full-bodied complacency about the safety of their drinking water. Their worry is partially reflected in Canada’s growing bottled water industry (see box, page 30), which last year recorded a 38-per-cent increase in sales as more and more people began leaving their taps turned off. And here are some reasons why:

• In the British Columbia communities of Ashcroft and Savona, which sit downstream from Kamloops on the Thompson River, faucets have been flicking shut with sobering speed. For the past 10 years, Weyerhaeuser Canada Ltd.’s pulp mill has been discharging into the river a brown liquor laced with phosphorus. The ¿phosphorus has recently shown gup in the drinking water along |with other industrial chemicals. ï“Most people have purifiers in their homes,” says Rose Delap, a Savona resident and secretary «of the Save the Thompson River Committee. “I guess those who can afford it drink Perrier.”

• In Regina, Saskatchewan Ecology Alliance member Jim Harding—like W.C. Fields— won’t “touch the stuff” because of the heavy chlorination needed to kill off the highly toxic blue-green algae which grows in Buffalo Pound Lake, from which the water is drawn. But that, perhaps, is the least of Regina’s drinking water problems. Other dangers focus on the aquifer that supplies half of the city’s water. The aquifer is in danger of contamination from a 1976 PCB spill and from the threat of chemical runoff from a landfill site built on top of it.

• Provincial officials who tested Ontario’s St. Clair River, which runs through what is mockingly known as Chemical Valley, found 17 chemicals in the drinking water as far as 165 km away at Windsor. After sheepishly admitting they “don’t know what it means,” they added the caveat that people in the vicinity of Canada’s largest concentration of petrochemical plants would be “prudent” to avoid drinking the water.

• In Harrietsfield, N.S., a bedroom community outside Halifax, residents were recently given a provincial order to stop drinking the water when 40 of 95 wells were discovered to be contaminated with uranium. Pathology resident Dr. Michael Moss allowed that uranium poisoning would damage kidneys, but couldn’t say much else, except: “We are especially concerned since so little research in the area has been done.”

• In Quebec, the townsfolk of L’Epiphanie, 35 km northeast of Montreal on L’Assomption River—one of six sorely polluted rivers in Quebec—were recently given an alternate water system after months of putting up with tap water that smelled of hog manure. The federal government ordered them to stop using the water and have fined one hog producer in the area $10,000 for dumping agricultural pollutants in the river. Quebec Environment Minister Marcel Léger has called the disposal of liquid hog manure “a grave problem which appears to have no solutions.”

• Recently, Quebeckers were further dismayed to learn from the man in charge of setting up new sewage treatment systems that in some parts of the province water is so polluted existing filtration plants just cannot get it clean enough. If that wasn’t sufficient cause for concern, Quebec has also added to the “fluoride debate,” calling for a moratorium on the substance which has been linked to cancer in various American studies. Despite warnings from Pierre Morin, co-author of a Quebec fluoride report, that “Canadians are absorbing disturbing quantities of fluoride,” Toronto recently announced it planned to up the fluoride in water by 20 per cent.

• Last summer, mercury levels at the Toronto Islands water filtration plant were the highest ever tested by Ontario’s environment ministry laboratories at .88 parts per billion (p.p.b.). Despite federal drinking water guideline objectives of .2 p.p.b., Toronto officials said the water was perfectly safe. In case after case across the country, more is being discovered about the insidious, invisible presence of contaminants in the drinking water, provoking many Canadians to ask the question: “Is the water safe to drink?” Canadian water quality experts hesitate to sound alarms about the fitness of drinking water but the fact remains that, since the post-war chemical boom, lab-coated specialists have unleashed about 50,000 new chemicals into the marketplace. Many of the chemicals have been identified in sufficient concentration in North American water supplies to be considered toxic (i.e. poisonous). Throughout Canada, despite cleanup attempts, rivers run with pollution from agricultural pesticides, heavy metals (such as cadmium, lead, zinc) and municipal sewage. In Manitoba, the Red River, which was once synonymous with a healthy breakfast, is now compared unfavorably to a toilet bowl by local critics. The Great Lakes, which are annually bombarded by more than 10 billion tonnes of industrial waste, are known to be little more than holding tanks for toxic substances. To date, almost 400 chemicals (many of them known carcinogens such as PCBs and Mirex) have been identified, making the Lakes a chemical Loch Ness. To believe that so pure a product as drinking water could be siphoned from so impure a source may be nothing short of wishful thinking. That is especially true considering Canada’s antiquated water treatment methods—methods that were designed more than 40 years ago to combat such waterborne bacterial diseases as typhoid and diphtheria but which are virtually worthless in screening out the modern chemical threat.

But while federal and provincial health officials no longer view drinking water as a substance above suspicion, the fact remains that research into toxicity is still in its infancy and, with a few exceptions, scientists are unsure of what chemicals, at what levels, can be life-threatening to humans. Why this surprising lack of knowledge? As with most things, it’s a matter of economics. First, it costs big money just to test water for chemicals—an estimated $50,000 for a thorough series of tests, using $500,000 equipment—which is why most drinking water, even in major cities, is tested for chemicals only once a year. Second, the cost of researching a single known chemical for its health effects is anywhere from $250,000 to $1.5 million. A further frustration lies in the erratic action of many chemicals—that is, they may show little effect on laboratory rats, but prove toxic to humans, as in the case of thalidomide. As well, one known chemical may prove to be infinitely more virulent when in combination with other chemicals while, on the other hand, certain chemicals can mask the toxic effects of other chemicals. Perhaps most troubling of all is that some substances such as arsenic and mercury are known to accumulate in fatty tissues of the body, starting out in amounts hardly detectable but rapidly multiplying to cause serious health problems. At best, research seems to be a scientific guessing game but, according to William Warwick, a scientist at the National Water Research Institute, the hazards should not be minimized: “It is very dangerous to assume that small concentrations of toxic chemicals are insignificant.”

*Ozonation, which is widely used in European water systems, is a process that uses ozone (a form of oxygen) to kill bacteria and eliminate odor and taste problems in water. As well, it has the ability to oxidize or break down many organic chemicals into harmless byproducts.

The federal department of health and welfare is currently examining a number of possible problem areas. One study will examine whether dioxin, which was considered culpable for an “epidemic” of herring gull stillbirths around Ontario’s Prince Edward County region in the ’70s, could also have seeped into the drinking water and have caused human birth defects. Other provocative studies now under way are looking at a more common foe—the much-discussed chlorine, which is used to purify surface water in all of Canada, except parts of Quebec which use ozone to purify their water.* Chlorine, a highly reactive substance, can produce trihalomethanes (THMs), such as the suspected carcinogen chloroform, when it combines with other organic substances in drinking water. The problem is further muddied by differing ideas of what levels of THMs are harmful. For example, the federal government has deemed it safe to have as many as 350 p.p.b. of THMs in the drinking water, whereas the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recently stated that upper limits should not exceed 100 p.p.b. In an attempt to sort the whole mess out, federal scientists, using water samples from 70 cities across the country, are looking for links between chlorinated water and cancer mortality rates and testing to see whether chlorinated water contains mutagens which can react in body tissues to cause genetic damage. “Twenty years ago we never would have thought chlorine would be a problem,” says Dr. Donald Wigle, head of Health and Welfare’s noncommunicable disease section. “But anything that is reactive enough to kill bacteria can do other things too.”

a log cabin that sits on a rock ledge at the end of a long road amid the sagebrush and ponderosa pines of Naramata, B.C., economist Jay Lewis surveys the sparkling water of Okanagan Lake. It was this lake and the thought of its premature demise that four years ago prompted Lewis to join the ranks of an increasing number of Canadians who are becoming militant about their water—and prodding the government into taking better care of it. At the time, Lewis, now a member of the South Okanagan Environmental Coalition, didn’t know DDT from GNP, but he learned fast. “Most people get reluctantly dragged into this when their own drinking water is threatened,” says Lewis, who wants to ensure that his two-year-old daughter’s right to uncontaminated drinking water is secure. The battle that Lewis fought and eventually won was to keep the controversial pesticides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T—both dioxin derivatives known to cause birth defects in humans—out of Okanagan Lake, where they had been used to kill milfoil weeds. In the process, Lewis also coauthored a book, The Other Face of 2,^-D, which has become the little red book of environmentalists. “We know that pesticides do strange, erratic things when used aquatically,” says Lewis. “They do not degrade as much as they would in the open air and sunlight. They tend to turn water bodies into chemical sinks.”

At present there are about 50 groups in Canada—15 in Ontario alone—that are fighting an ecological guerrilla war to keep their water resources pure. Like Harwich Township’s Lillian Tomen, who keeps her CRAW (Citizens Rebelling Against Waste) files next to the rabbit cage in her home, most operate a brand of kitchen-table diplomacy. Using small funds and active citizenries, they demand that health officials test their water for chemicals and heavy metals, do health surveys and clean up any dumpsites that might be leaching chemicals into their drinking water. Almost without exception, they have taken as their prototype what many consider to be North America’s environmental apocalypse—the Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Almost all have read Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals, a 344-page book by reporter Michael Brown, which not only chronicles what happened in the Love Canal but predicts that there are many sequels yet to come.

The town of Whitchurch-Stouffville, 55 km northeast of Toronto, is one sequel that Fran Sainsbury, chairperson of POWR (Preserve Our Water Resources), is hoping will stay unscripted. Since 1974, Sainsbury has been lobbying municipal and provincial officials to close down a landfill site that sits 15 metres above the aquifer that supplies the town’s wells. In the late ’60s, millions of litres of liquid industrial waste were surreptitiously taken to the dump by dead of night, giving off fumes that Keith Hutchinson, who lives just 90 metres from it, remembers “were so bad we had to shut the windows.” Tests of some wells have already shown traces of highly toxic phenols, nitrates and heavy metals, evidence that chemicals have been leaching from the dump and into the water supply. But a more disturbing finding was this: in talking with a 21-member local women’s group, Sainsbury learned that of five who had been recently pregnant, four had had miscarriages; the other gave birth to a child without a thyroid. This discovery prompted a door-to-door health survey by residents which turned up a 25-percent miscarriage rate. Officials nonetheless insist the water is safe.

For all their diversity, the groups share a common feeling—frustration. It comes from many sources, from neighbors who fear that any unnatural hubbub about the water lowers land values, to town councillors who fear it might scare tourists away. But the frustration is fired mainly by governments which seem to consider most complainers as raging paranoiacs. As a result, the frustration is quickly turning into a suspicion that government may not be acting in the best interests of the people. In some cases, this suspicion is justified. In Saskatoon, for example, millions of litres of poisonous chemicals and herbicides were injected at high pressures into a 550-metre-deep disposal well over a 14-year period from 1963, despite a 1973 report which acknowledged that the well could leak and cause “widespread irreversible contamination of groundwater.” Not only was the well used for four years after that warning, but the report itself was only made public when a local reporter found it in the provincial government’s files.

From Operation Clean at Niagaraon-the-Lake, Ont., the story is much the same. There, the 600-member group is fighting to prevent SCA Chemical Services Inc. from discharging its effluent into the Niagara River, which already is little more than a colon for refuse from upstate New York. “We know we aren’t a priority with the Bill Davis government,” says Margherita Howe, from her turn-of-the-century home where she runs Operation Clean. “All they want to know is how they can get rid of us crazy people.” John Hartlen of Waverley, N.S., echoes those sentiments but his, at least, is a story with a happy ending. Five years ago, Hartlen was at death’s door with arsenic poisoning from his well. The arsenic (from gold mine tailings) had made his hair go prematurely grey and had caused his skin to darken. After a five-year crusade, however, Hartlen has succeeded in getting the provincial government to agree to a new $3.5-million water supply for the 500 families of the area, although the problem of arsenic still affects more than 100 Nova Scotia communities. Says Hartlen of his battle: “All you can do is scream and holler and make a big political noise.”

To be fair, most provincial governments are as confounded by the problems as the general public is ignorant of them. After all, it is only in the past two years that the problems of indiscriminate toxic waste dumping has reached even the lower rungs of public debate. It is also true, however, that with environmental issues taking a backseat to economic growth these days, the less provincial cabinets hear about ecological problems the better they like it. Says one former water tester for the Ontario environment ministry: “Anyone who continually makes a habit of finding new problem areas is sure to have his career path blocked.” At the Alberta environment ministry, the department’s hydrogeological team is run ragged merely testing new sites for their acceptability to handle wastes.

“We haven’t begun to see whether the old ones are causing trouble,” said Bob MacKenzie, head of solid waste management. “But many of them are open and uncontrolled, some affecting both ground and surface water.” As well, Alberta, like the rest of the provinces, has lax laws regulating and prosecuting the dumping of toxic substances. Often the biggest offender is the oil industry, with toxic wastes from the rigs ending up illegally pitched into community dumps or in a roadside ditch—a phenomenon known as “midnight dumping.”

Certain small steps have been taken to clean up the mess, however. In Ontario, former environment minister Harry Parrott—who has been consistently under fire from environmentalists—earlier this year formed a garbage “SWAT squad,” known as “Parrott’s ferrets,” to investigate and get tough with industrial polluters. The federal government, too, is taking steps to ensure that many of the once haphazardly dumped contaminants no longer end up in water supplies. At present, it is setting up the Toxic Chemicals Management Centre and regulations on transporting hazardous wastes are pending. In essence, these will ensure that waste material is traced from the source to the dump site, with lawbreakers receiving fines of up to $50,000. Still, the system will not be foolproof. “You’ll continue to get companies which just pull the plug on the sewer at night and dump the stuff right into the nearest river,” says Rick Findlay of Environment Canada.

As legislatures, laboratories and lobbyists take separate tracks toward a solution, there are still people who must live with the problem. Among them is Charlie Jacobs, who never guessed he would end up hauling water in his old age. But Jacobs worries not so much for himself as for his two granddaughters, Donna, 3, and Debbie, 5, who may never again taste the water from the well that his father dug. For they, along with their parents, Dianne and Don Jacobs, no longer drink the water. “The province says there’s ‘no problem,’ ” says Dianne Jacobs. “But how can you believe them when even they don’t know what’s coming out of the tap?”

With files from Anne Beirne, Michael Clugston, Peter Carlyle-Gordge, Suzanne Fournier and Peter von Stackelberg.