Expert questions GN claim no long-term health problems will stem from Iqaluit water crisis
Water tests from October don’t include results for some carcinogenic compounds commonly present in fuel products
Water test results released by the Department of Health do not conclusively say whether or not toxic compounds made it to Iqaluit’s taps when the city’s drinking water was contaminated with diesel fuel last October, say some experts.
The uncertainty revolves around what was — and wasn’t — tested for, as well as whether the tests picked up minuscule amounts of potentially dangerous compounds, says Rosa Galvez, a Laval University environmental engineering professor. Compounds are substances made up of two or more elements — for example, many fuels are compounds of hydrogen and carbon.
Nunatsiaq News provided Galvez, who studies water, oil pollution and contamination, with testing data obtained from the department through Nunavut’s access to information law.
The data comes from samples taken on Oct. 14 and 15, at various locations in Iqaluit, such as homes on the upper plateau and the Road to Nowhere, the Aquatic Centre, and Northmart.
The samples were analyzed by Caduceon Environmental Laboratories in Ottawa and show levels for some 50 individual compounds, including some carcinogens.
Nunavut’s chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, has maintained the results show these compounds did not make it to people’s taps in high enough levels to cause concern about long-term health effects.
“Individually, [the compounds] don’t exceed the criteria — individually,” Galvez said in an interview.
“The problem is the chronic and the cumulative effect of all the other compounds that are under the detection limit, bearing in mind that these detection limits are very high.”
Part of the problem is the analysis shows testing for groups of petroleum hydrocarbons, including F1, which includes gasoline; F2, which includes diesel and kerosene; F3, which includes lubricants and oils and F4, which is made up of heavier oils.
Each group contains hundreds of individual compounds that could be more or less toxic to humans, Galvez said.
“There’s a lot of things that can be there and they have been grouped under these families,” she said.
“So it’s difficult to analyze.”
For example, the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality lists the maximum allowable content of one carcinogenic compound commonly found in the F3 category — benzo[a]pyrene — at 0.04 micrograms per litre.
Caduceon did not test specifically for benzo[a]pyrene on Oct. 14, but it did test for the F3 category, with a much higher minimum testing level of 400 micrograms per litre.
“If people said, ‘I’m smelling hydrocarbons,’ it’s because there were, at that point, hydrocarbons,” Galvez said, adding that humans can smell fuel at 0.1 micrograms per litre, while Caduceon’s limit for detecting hydrocarbons was 50 to 400 micrograms per litre, depending on the group.
In an interview with Nunatsiaq News, Patterson explained the way the Health Department carried out the water tests.
He says the department consulted with national experts who were satisfied with the way the testing was done, and the “low levels” of contamination throughout the distribution system meant there wasn’t a need for more specific testing.
“If it had been advised by the [experts], then yeah, we would have taken up a greater detail of testing,” he said.
Patterson says the Health Department did eventually have Caduceon test for benzo[a]pyrene as well, but the samples were taken on Oct. 27 — more than two weeks after the do-not-consume order was called. Caduceon didn’t detect the benzo[a]pyrene in this test, which was set to detect the compound at levels of 0.01 micrograms per litre.
Benoit Barbeau, a civil engineering professor at Polytechnique Montreal, shares some of Galvez’s concerns.
He said he sets detection limits in his lab lower than Caduceon did for some of the compounds included in the water data procured by the Department of Health.
“[The results aren’t] telling you if it’s toxic or not,” he said, adding to Galvez’s point that it’s important to know levels of individual compounds contained in the F1 to F4 categories.
“Because some hydrocarbons are actually not very toxic for humans.”
Both Galvez and Barbeau also say the government should have tested the source of the contamination as well — an old, underground fuel tank.
“Analyze the oil that is in the tank, get the fingerprint for that, and then you decide, what are the compounds that you’re going to analyze,” Galvez said.
A fingerprint indicates what specific compounds are present in a sample.
“It’s like they did it the other way around.”
The city did take a fingerprint after the tank was discovered in mid-November, and the Health Department saw the results of that sample on Nov. 22, said Patterson.
Patterson didn’t say whether the department used that sample to do more testing for specific chemicals.
Knowing all this, Galvez said she couldn’t say what possible health effects could arise from the exposure to fuel in Iqaluit’s water supply. It would depend on each person, their age, what they were exposed to and how much.
But one of the biggest problems in determining potential health effects is the availability of data.
“We have to worry about the cumulative effect of all these families of compounds,” she said.
Patterson’s position is still that there might have been short-term health effects, such as headaches or dizziness, but health officials don’t anticipate them in the long-term.
“The water that was actually delivered to people, all of those hits of those hydrocarbons were below the screening levels,” he said.
“None of the staff at Iqaluit hospital, like in the [emergency department], have brought forward any concerns that there was or is ongoing health problems due to contamination.”
Nunatsiaq News is still trying to compile all of the testing data procured by the Department of Health and City of Iqaluit during last year’s water emergency.
Health Department spokesperson Danarae Sommerville said on Nov. 17 that the department was planning to take all of the data and make a presentation to the public.
That presentation was never given, as Patterson said the department was busy with other tasks.
Some test results were also redacted from documents recently provided to Nunatsiaq News by the Department of Health because the City of Iqaluit has objected to their disclosure.
Nunatsiaq News reached out to Linnea Ingebrigtson, Health’s acting deputy health minister, to ask that she review that decision. She did not reply.
Instead, Health spokesperson Chris Puglia reiterated the department’s decision.
“You may request the data directly from the city,” he said.
When Nunatsiaq News asked the city about the redacted test results, spokesperson Aleksey Cameron said the city objects to “releasing testing information that was prepared for the city and at the city’s expense.”
She did not respond to a request for the city to provide data directly.