Water, Water Everywhere–Do We Dare Drink It?
by author Pat Bennett
Ever since Walkerton’s tragic deadly E. coli outbreak, Canadians across this country are asking, “Is our tap water really safe?”
We have every right to ask.
Walkerton, a fiasco of cover-ups and incompetence whose resulting deaths and illnesses were unnecessary, could have happened anywhere in Canada. Severe punishment for those who were aware of the contamination but took no action could help curb further lax water inspection. But clearly, everywhere, governments must do much more to protect groundwater from contamination.
In the relentless pursuit of profits, industry and other human activities have polluted most of the lakes, rivers and aquifers that provide our drinking water. Urban dwellers must rely on the efficiency and inspection of treatment plants while most rural residents rely on well water and must monitor their own water safety. About 30 per cent of Canadians rely on groundwater for domestic use. Two-thirds of these live in rural areas.
E. coli: Through the Loopholes
The citizens of Garland, Nova Scotia have been plagued by water problems for a decade. Three of six private wells tested were contaminated by fecal coliform bacteria (from animal or human waste). That can include E. coli. The province’s Ministry of the Environment can’t find the source of the problem, but resident Rodney Rhodenziner says he knows of a farm where cow manure still flows directly into a water supply stream despite a 1986 ministry cleanup order.
A recent review of Nova Scotia’s Environmental Protection Act shows officials are reluctant to enforce the law and have little support from politicians. “They’re up against an incomplete legislative framework,” says environmental consultant Anne Mueke, which is full of loopholes allowing people to avoid taking responsibility.
Thomas Falle, whose laboratory conducted the Garland test, says he gets similar test results all the time across the country. The Canadian Environmental Defence Fund (CEDF), Pollution Probe and 14 public interest groups have formed a coalition representing five threatened municipalities (including Walkerton) in water quality actions. One aims to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine, the “rain-barrel” of southern Ontario, from a proposal to build 7,000 new houses. Stopping urban sprawl is critical to the health of the groundwater supply.
In Northern Ontario, Gulf Oil Ltd contaminated Port Loring’s water supply back in 1978. Residents are still waiting for clean drinking water and can only drink bottled water.
Another concern is the alarming rate at which factory farming is increasing, considering that one farm’s 2,500 sows (producing 20 piglets per year) can create as much effluent as a town of 125,000 people without a waste treatment system. Water- and airborne contamination awaits everyone living nearby, with resulting illness, miscarriages, birth defects and even death. Citizens near London, Ontario may soon face the powerful noise, smell and threats to drinking water from a new factory hog farm. CEDF and the Rural Stewardship Association are fighting this decision and hope to use municipal bylaws to ban such operations.
Scrimping With Chlorine
Mixed with industrial chemical waste, which governments virtually ignore, effluent and other toxic substances are “handled” with additional chlorine at water treatment plants. Although chlorine is itself poisonous, better means of water purification are more expensive.
In British Columbia, Arrow Creek has supplied Creston with pure chlorine-free water for the past 86 years, but now regional health inspector Dr Andrew Larder insists Creston use chlorine as a disinfectant against the wishes of the community. This is likely linked to the threat of future logging and its effect on the watershed, a problem of paramount importance on the West Coast.
Despite Premier Dosanjh’s promise to protect BC drinking water, his government may replace Creston Valley Forest Corporation’s 15-year forest licence with a 99-year renewable licence to log the pristine, 7,900-hectare Arrow Creek Watershed Reserve. Will Kopp, coordinator of the BC Tap Water Alliance, says the Premier should deny the licence, halt future logging and legislate mandatory community water supply watershed protection. Public input is now being sought to protect BC water safety (see the Web site [elp.gov.bc.ca]).
Meanwhile, citizens should pressure governments to assure all water source inspections are carried out properly and the findings made public. The federal government should impose a moratorium on factory farms until clean water protections are strengthened and pollution from current facilities eliminated. Public input should always be solicited prior to granting any permits for new or larger factory farms. Open-air lagoons should be phased out and replaced with better technology to treat the manure. Frequent inspection of these facilities should also be assured. Consumers should avoid factory-produced meat in favour of meat produced by organic farmers.
All Canadians have the right to safe, clean drinking water. The onus shouldn’t be on us to protect it. That is why we have government–isn’t it?
Patricia Bennett is is freelance writer living in Longworth, BC.
Grade 10 students in Pierson, Manitoba, were given a well-testing project in a horticultural and environmental studies class. Of 20 samples submitted for analysis, 12 came back with unacceptably high bacteria or nitrate levels. Another testing by a local conservation district showed 70 per cent of wells tested was contaminated. A number of the samples were well above 200 colonies of bacteria per 100 millilitres of water. The maximum acceptable level is 10, provided there are no E coli bacteria colonies present. For those more harmful bacteria, which are found in animal manure, there is no safe level.
Richard Pasquill is field services operator for the Manitoba Water Services Board in Brandon. He says extremely wet weather and light soils contributed to nitrate and bacterial contamination of wells as flood waters washed contamination down from the surface to the water table.
Manitoba Co-Operator, January 13, 2000
Canada’s Water Under Threat
by author Pat Bennett
Arm-twisting has begun by huge global corporations and financial institutions to get their foot in the door of what they perceive to be an excellent business opportunity–the exploitation of Canadian water. Canada holds 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water supplies.
Every year, these corporate elite hold a global water summit where industry leaders like Lyonnaise Des Eaux of France, which distributes private water services to 68 million people worldwide, gather to chit-chat with influential politicians and other powerful people throughout the world to advance their interests.
Water, however is not a commodity for privatization and profit. Good water belongs to the people. Canadians can’t allow any meddling, either by privatization or government cut-backs. The tragedy of Walkerton is proof that this tragedy could be repeated in every province and territory in Canada unless we Canadians wake up and take control. We are all familiar with this preventable tragedy. The government water inspection agency issued warnings that there was something horribly wrong with Walkerton’s water supply as far back as 1997, but these warnings were ignored. The Ontario government compounded the problem by privatizing water inspection and allowing a “for-profit” private agency to take over water inspection services. Obviously, this was a tragic mistake.
Individually, we must be vigilant regarding the possibility of contamination of our wells from farm run-off (cow manure, pesticide and other chemical residue). Careless dumping of hazardous materials into our lakes and rivers has also polluted many water supplies. Logging in watersheds has caused mud-slides and silt residue to sully our watersheds. We cannot allow corporate profit to take precedence over the protection of this most precious resource. The ball is in our court. We have the power to protect our water by pressuring government to provide us with the necessary amount of inspectors to do a thorough job. This we must insist on.
But what of the external foreign corporate pressure being exerted on Canada under the North Canadian Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)? Corporate opportunists now feel that their time is close at hand. Somewhere in Canada a province or territory will listen to their siren song of “jobs, jobs, jobs” and “major profits for investors.”
Yes, there would be jobs–in the beginning. Construction would demand a full work force until the necessary systems were in place. Then that would be that. No more jobs. Canadian benefits from this large-scale trade in water would be over and our precious water would move from being a matter of public trust to the status of a private commodity.
Liberal MP, Dennis Mills, had evidently been listening to this corporate siren song and vigorously promoted the Great Recycling and Northern Development Canal Project, which would effectively channel massive amounts of water from James Bay, in Northern Ontario, to the United States. This scheme has been on the development table since 1959.
The plan is to turn James Bay into a fresh-water reservoir by building a dam to separate it from Hudson Bay and channeling this captive water via human-made canals, existing rivers and pumps to the Great Lakes for further distribution to the US. The annual rate of diversion would be approximately 350 billion cubic metres. One can only assume that Mills has personally invested heavily in this abhorrent scheme.
Another “nasty” is the North America Water and Power Alliance scheme. This plan, put forward in 1964, would see the Yukon, Skeena, Columbia and Fraser rivers combine to contribute to an 800-km-long reservoir in the Rocky Mountain Trench of British Columbia.
From here the water would be diverted to western states at a rate of 310 billion cubic metres per year. Thank heaven for the BC government’s timely moratorium on the export of bulk water from BC.
In the early ’90s a joint venture between Sun Belt Water Inc of California and a Canadian company, Snowcap Waters of Fanny Bay, British Columbia, the Canadian subsidiary of Sun Belt Water Inc, had planned to export, via tanker, water from a coastal stream in BC. This proposal sounded so good to the huge corporates, it initiated a veritable flood of proposals from other companies.
All these schemes were abruptly shelved when the BC moratorium was announced. The moratorium is now being challenged under NAFTA. Sun Belt is demanding compensation for its “immeasurable” lost profits from the failure of its scheme. In any law cases involving NAFTA, US companies win every time.
Other water diversification schemes have made headlines. A proposal from the Nova Group received a permit in March, 1998, to draw up to 600 million cubic metres a year from Lake Superior for export to Asia. An outraged public screamed and the Ontario government revoked the permit. Nova appealed the decision, but has since dropped the suit.
The most recent and perhaps the most dangerous scheme is being promoted by the McCurdy Group of Gander, Newfoundland. They propose withdrawing 52 million cubic metres of water a year from Gisbourne Lake in southern Newfoundland. Their proposal is currently under environmental review. Newfoundland is one of our poorest provinces, trying desperately to find paths out of its depressed economy. Certainly Newfoundlanders are considering this proposal.
Despite Liberal promises dating back to the 1993 election campaign, Canadian water remains unprotected by strong federal legislation from the potential ravages of NAFTA. The agreement does not explicitly exempt water, so it remains up to our government to remove it from any association with NAFTA. Currently, US corporations have “national treatment” rights to our water once any Canadian company is granted an export permit.
Therein lies the danger. We need federal legislation to prohibit the mass export of water either by tanker or by diversion–and we need it now! We can only successfully do this by removing “water” from the NAFTA table altogether and then introducing strong legislation to protect it.
Canadians can still repeal NAFTA. For information contact:
Canadians Concerned About Free Trade.
Address: 498-2nd Avenue North, Saskatoon, SK, S7K 2C1.
Phone: (306) 931-6938.
Fax: (306) 244-3790 or
Patricia Bennett is a freelance writer living in Longworth, BC.
Industrial Solvent in Drinking Water
The drinking water in some Ontario communities has been found to contain high levels of trichlorethelene (TCE), a toxic industrial solvent, provincial water quality disclosure records show. Tens of thousands of people have been exposed to the compound in recent years at levels considered risky in the United States.
TCE is commonly used to degrease metals. Exposure to high levels of it is associated with leukemia and cancers of the cervix, prostate and colon, among others. It’s dangerous to drink water containing TCE and risky even to bathe or shower in it because of the vapour.
The town of Beckwith, near Ottawa, had the worst results: TCE levels last year exceeded outdated provincial standards. Barrie, Cambridge, Fergus, Orangeville and Orillia were among towns whose water levels of TCE were near or exceeded the US TCE safety standard in 1998 and 1999 tests.
Ontario’s TCE safety standard allows 10 times the amount permitted in the US. There, the deaths of 12 children were blamed on the chemical in a tragedy that inspired the novel and Hollywood film, A Civil Action. The Sierra Legal Defence Fund is demanding Ontario adopt the US standard of five parts per billion of TCE in drinking water.
Globe and Mail, March 21, 2001
Questioning Water Safety
by author Rick de Vries
Studies undertaken in Europe, the United States and Canada have detected a wide range of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in surface water, groundwater and even drinking water systems. PPCPs are basically all drugs such as antibiotics, steroids, antidepressants, narcotics, painkillers and tranquilizers. They also include oral contraceptives, antiseptics, fragrances, shampoos, sunscreens, insect repellents, food supplements, caffeine and nicotine, to name a few.
There are several ways this form of water contamination occurs. When you take a drug, a large percentage of it passes through the body unchanged. The body also converts some of that drug into other compounds called metabolites, which may be even more bioactive than the original drug. The combined result is excreted through urine and feces and ultimately ends up in waste treatment plants along with other personal care products that have been washed off the body. Most treatment plants are unable to remove PPCPs, so they pass into either surface waters (from the liquid portion) or groundwater (from the solid waste portion). Runoff from farm animal operations also contributes a significant amount of PPCPs to the environment, as do hospital discharges and the aquaculture industry.
The range of contaminants is staggering. German researchers have found up to 60 different drugs in their water samples. In their 30-state water sampling, the US Geological Survey has found 31 kinds of antibiotics and antibacterial chemicals, as well as a variety of hormones and birth control compounds.
We’re not talking just small amounts of chemicals either. Thousands of tonnes are released into water annually, which is similar to the amount of fertilizers used by the agriculture industry. One startling example involves clofibric acid, a drug for reducing cholesterol levels. Estimates put the clofibric acid content in the North Sea at 43 to 66 tonnes, with an additional 50 to 100 tonnes flowing through every year!
Should We Be Concerned?
Yes. Little is known about how each component of this complex mix reacts with each other or the environment. There are simply too many chemicals to be able to predict what happens.
We don’t know the long-term effects on humans and aquatic ecosystems. Some effects could be profound and readily visible; however, others could be so subtle that they may not be detectable for years.
At present, we have a long list of questions rather than facts. Consider the PPCPs found in drinking water samples. What are the long-term effects of drinking this chemical mixture every day? Musk (a fragrance used in detergents and perfumes) is fat-soluble and therefore accumulates in the fatty tissues of fish. What are the long-term effects of eating this fish? A pregnant woman risks the health of her developing fetus when she ingests chemicals. What are the effects on the fetus from the consumption of PPCPs in food or drinking water?
Hormones have also been detected in water samples. Could their continual ingestion be the cause of decreased fertility, cancers and other diseases? Some studies have indicated this may indeed be the case. In addition, the increased appearance of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a matter of great concern among health-care professionals. Could the significant levels of antibiotics in water systems be a contributing factor? Some researchers say it is possible. The answer to all of these questions above and many more is that we simply do not know.
What We Do Know
Generations of aquatic organisms have lived and continue to live in this chemical soup. For them, there is no escape. Toxic exposure is constant and even low concentrations of PPCPs can have very significant effects on many species. The following are some examples:
- Synthetic estrogen in oral contraceptives can lead to the feminization of male fish and deformed sex organs in other species.
- Antidepressants can disrupt spawning behaviour in shellfish.
- Musk accumulates in the fatty tissues of aquatic organisms, which leads to bioaccumulation as it moves up the food chain.
- Certain cardiac drugs can prevent aquatic organisms from expelling contaminants from their systems, thus increasing the toxic effects of all the PPCPs they are exposed to.
The issue of PPCP contamination of water systems has only been recognized in the last 10 years. More extensive sampling programs have recently begun, and some effects on human and environmental health are beginning to be examined.
The magnitude of this problem and potential negative impacts definitely warrant further investigation. Contamination is extensive and exposure is continual. As long as wastewater treatment plants continue to pump out PPCPs, contaminants will always be present in water systems. Natural degradation of these chemicals can occur; however, new PPCPs continually flowing in results in no decrease in concentration and renders the existing treatment process ineffective. Perhaps before seeking an answer to the question of what PPCPs are doing to the environment, and us, we should look at how we can keep them out in the first place.
For more information, go the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site at epa.gov/nerlesd1/chemistry/pharma/.
Rick de Vries is the co-publisher and editor of Fresh Outlook Magazine, which explores water and wastewater issues as well as related environmental topics. He has a background in biological sciences technology, specializing in pollution and environmental sciences.
by author Curtis Foreman
Water sustains life. The water you drink replenishes your body’s cells and flushes out waste to keep you healthy and vibrant. In fact, at any given time, almost two-thirds of your body is composed of the water you’ve consumed in the previous few days.
Now picture this: a friend offers you a glass of water and presents you with something that smells strongly of chlorine. When you pull a face, she laughs and says she knows it smells, but thinks it’s okay to drink.
In a way, she’s right; chlorine is the very reason that most municipally treated water is “okay.” Ever since the disinfecting properties of chlorine were discovered in the 19th century, cities have been adding it to drinking water to kill harmful micro-organisms and pathogens.
But the benefits of chlorination come at a cost. Although scientists and health officials generally agree that chlorine levels in municipally treated water are too low to pose a significant health risk to humans, the use of chlorine actually creates byproducts that can cause serious harm.
When chlorine reacts with organic material, such as leaves and twigs in source water, it produces chlorinated organic compounds called trihalomethanes, which include such toxic substances as chloroform. Several studies have shown these substances to be carcinogenic even in extremely low doses, and other studies have implicated them in problems during pregnancy.
Chlorine and its byproducts aren’t the only hazards. Lead from pipes can leach into water supplies. If your drinking water comes from an untreated source such as a private well, the groundwater supply can become tainted with diseases such as Giardia or Cryptosporidium, fecal coliform from animal waste, or chemicals such as pesticides.