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

People in Iqaluit fill jugs with river water on Oct. 12, 2021 after the Government of Nunavut issued a do-not-consume water advisory due to fuel contamination in the city’s water supply. (File photo by Mélanie Ritchot)

By David Venn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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 Department of Health had issued an advisory to not consume Iqaluit’s water on Oct. 12, 2021, more than a week after people started reporting their tap water smelled of fuel.

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.

City staff excavate the suspected source of the water supply’s fuel contamination in November, before removing it from the nearby water treatment plant. (Photo courtesy of the City of Iqaluit)

“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.

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(14) Comments:

  1. Posted by Absolute Non-Confidence on

    “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.”

    The City continues to deny its outstanding failures on this issue, and continues to hope that if we close our eyes it will all go away.

    And what about this?

    “the city objects to “releasing testing information that was prepared for the city and at the city’s expense.”

    At the city’s expense? Who pays the expenses for the city? Taxpayers? Do taxpayers not have the right to see the results of a study done at their expense, and concerning their own health?

    We shall not soon forget this spectacle of malfeasance and denial, Mr. Mayor.

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    • Posted by Empty promises on

      I remember the promise of transparency from our newly elected mayor, was that just a lie? What happened?

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    • Posted by Shame on

      Another chapter for Mr. Mayor’s after term book.

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  2. Posted by still here on

    Please do research, cumulative affects of certain types of compounds over time can lead to leukemia, leukemia does not happen right away and can take years to develop, I think we would all be better off doing our own research for the safety of ourselves.

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    • Posted by Ian on

      Our poor capital, we have at least 100 federal civil servants sitting in their offices all day doing what, nothing can they with all their education and training, assist us in dealing with this issue. But no they sit there all day sending out compliance and warning letters, what a total waste of taxpayers dollars.the high and mighty federal gov. So out of touch

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      • Posted by 867 on

        This comment is unbelievably out of touch and out of line. This is a Municipal issue and has nothing to do with the Feds.

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        • Posted by Ian on

          Duuuhhh,the federal gov.just gave us 214 million dollars,flew in the Army to save us,and this is an old spill,and Liberals promised clean drinking water for all of northern communitys,867 do you live under a rock.or work for the feds.and everyone delights in torturing the,mayor

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    • Posted by Difference on

      Long term, the sun will expand and engulf the earth. Everything on the earth will be consumed in that giant nuclear furnace.
      .
      So, long term, nothing we do here and now, makes any permanent differennce.
      .
      Is that what you are trying to say?

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  3. Posted by oct 2023 on

    This mayor has done a good job of trying to distract some from his incompetence with shiny and glittery things that any mayor in his position would have been able to obtain. What he hasn’t done is apologize for his incompetence, ego, disrespect and lies. We were all relieved that his intent was only for one term but he is now boosting that he will run again. We need a new mayor and CAO. One that respects residents enough to own up to their mistakes and apologize.

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  4. Posted by ? on

    There’s something amiss here,years ago when the fuel was bad and the whole
    towns people had broken down equipment ie:skidoos,outboards the govt then said that the gas was fine and usable but after sending out fuel samples to a private testing lab down south and paid for the testing to be done out of our pockets and the results
    differed what the govt was saying.Anything that is contaminated is not edible or drinkable for human consumption I fear that long term health issues for the people
    of Iqaluit if the system is not purged properly.Are those people saying that it’s fine
    using the water to cook their meals and are they drinking the tap water.

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  5. Posted by Skin Condition on

    I can’t have been the only person to have skin issues after the contamination.

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    • Posted by Not alone on

      You are not alone. I began to develop severe skin and digestive irritation weeks before this water problem was discovered. I gave up going to the hospital as they couldn’t diagnose or pinpoint my issues. Weeks of no definitive answer to my ailments. I still have scars from this…. i went on vacation a week before they announced the fuel leak. Once I had left the territory my ailments mysteriously went away with never being able to get a doctor to diagnose it. There needs to be a inquiry into the water problems or a class action lawsuit since everyone denies there are any health problems caused by this.

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  6. Posted by Review needed on

    A review is needed, if not maybe take the city and the GN to court, long term health hazard, no wonder the city has been refusing to release the data in the water tests.
    How can we get a review on the cities handling of this embarrassment? Things need to change and improved on.

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    • Posted by inquest on

      A inquest is needed for sure, with the possibility of long term health effects from our tap water and from the mishandling by the city and the lack of foresight by the GN this needs to be investigated and improvements need to be made.
      CBC should investigate this and bring it to the spotlight.

  7. Posted by I live in the Arctic on

    wow complete lack of competence and integrity from city staff/officials. everyone living in Iqaluit a right to know!

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