Iqaluit’s water test results: what we know and don’t know

Graphs showing Iqaluit water testing results lack key information, professors say

This graph shows levels of F2 hydrocarbons found in Iqaluit’s water treatment system earlier this month. F2 hydrocarbons include substances such as diesel and kerosene. (Graph courtesy of the Department of Health)

By Mélanie Ritchot

Graphs released last week that show what has contaminated Iqaluit’s drinking water don’t include enough information to be useful, say two University of Toronto professors.

Miriam Diamond is a professor in the department of earth science at the University of Toronto. (Photo from the University of Toronto)

Nunavut’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, presented and interpreted the graphs at an Oct. 22 news conference.

They are missing key information, including labelling and actual concentrations for each compound detected, said Miriam Diamond, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Toronto.

Diamond is one of two experts Nunatsiaq News asked to help interpret how the data were presented in the graphs.

“These results give rise to too many questions, including what I would say is incomplete data and certainly very poor visualization,” she said.

“I’m just stressed at the lack of clarity [and] the lack of transparency.”

One graph shows sampling results for hydrocarbons classified as F2, which include diesel and kerosene. These were found at various levels intermittently throughout the water treatment process, except the distribution system, between Oct. 12 and 17.

The other graph shows individual compounds found in the water, including benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene.

This graph shows levels of individual compounds found in Iqaluit’s water treatment system. The white bars show maximum acceptable amount set by the federal government’s Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality, while the coloured bars show how much of each compound was found. (Graph courtesy of the Health Department)

Samples taken from the treatment plant’s North Clear well on Oct. 12 found each of these compounds, but Diamond questions the way the graph presents the data.

“Without having actual concentrations, it’s very hard to interpret these [graphs] yourself,” she said.

On the graph, at first glance it looks like the contaminants found were about two to five times higher than what is considered safe, but the amounts found in the North Clear well that day were much higher.

Although the Department of Health still has yet to publicly release the full sample results, spokesperson Chris Puglia shared a specific set of results with Nunatsiaq News on Thursday — the concentrations of compounds found in the North Clear well on Oct. 12.

The concentration of benzene in that well on that day, for example, was 600 times higher than the maximum acceptable amount set by the federal government’s Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality, according to the department.

The concentration of ethylbenzene in that well on Oct. 12 was 135 times higher than the maximum acceptable amount; xylene was 1,211 times higher and toluene was 50.8 times higher.

Diamond said the graphs use the wrong kind of grid lines — linear lines on a logarithmic scale that grows exponentially along the left-hand side of the graph — which explains why they don’t look like they are plotted accurately.

She also said the data is not reported consistently.

For example, on the graph showing F2 hydrocarbon results, there are no bars representing contaminants in the reservoir on Oct. 15. It’s unclear whether that means the reservoir wasn’t tested, or whether nothing was detected — if that’s the case, a proper graph would say “undetected,” she explained.

“You don’t present a graph without proper labelling,” she said.

Diamond said as a general rule, people shouldn’t believe anything until they see the data to back it up.

Charles Jia, a professor in the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry at the University of Toronto, agrees the graphs are hard to read at first glance partly because of the logarithmic scale.

Charles Jia is a professor at the University of Toronto’s department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry. (Photo from the University of Toronto)

“The concentration of hydrocarbons in the water sample is so high, if they used a linear scale, they would not be able to plot it,” Jia explained.

“But, if [they] want to be clear, just give those numbers.”

The graphs do not show detectable amounts of benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene or xylene further along Iqaluit’s water distribution system, and Patterson says he’s found no evidence they made it to people’s taps.

These are what Patterson has described in news conferences as “contaminants of concern” because of the health effects they can cause.

Benzene, for example, has been shown to cause cancer in humans. It can also affect people’s blood and immune systems if exposed to amounts higher than the safety threshold, according to the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality.

Benzene can affect humans who drink contaminated water, inhale steam from it, or shower in it.

Amy Elgersma, Iqaluit’s chief administrative officer, said she believes these compounds stayed in the North Clear well because hydrocarbons are hydrophobic, meaning they “tend” to stay on the surface of the water.

“It’s hard to say exactly how long it would have taken for them to move through the [water treatment] system, but they were really sticking around in that North Clear well,” she said.

The only category of contaminants the graphs show in the reservoir — the last step before water goes into distribution — are the F2 contaminants, which include diesel and kerosene.

These contaminants were not detected in Iqaluit’s water distribution system, said Puglia.

Patterson explained at the Oct. 22 news conference that people can smell fuel in their water even when it’s present at such low levels that it won’t appear in test results, because the contaminants get into the air easily.

“For many people, you will smell it before it presents a health hazard,” Patterson said.

The Department of Health is planning on releasing all of its testing data eventually, although there is no timeline for its release, said Puglia.

So far, it’s not known where all samples have been taken from, which dates they were gathered and when each result came back.

He said the department is working on a way to release the data “in a way that will not cause misinterpretation.”

To interpret lab results, a person needs to understand different reporting methods, maximum allowable concentrations of contaminants, drinking water screening values, and Iqaluit’s water treatment plant and distribution system, he said.

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(26) Comments:

  1. Posted by Not everyone is an expert on

    You know this was a public presentation right? As in… not all of the detailed and raw data collected was shown? As in… they needed to show something the average Joe can understand at a conceptual level? Too many people getting angry not believing the city and consultants because they aren’t “showing me all the data”, 99% of those people wouldn’t even know what they’re looking at if it was provided. The final paragraph says it all.

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    • Posted by Northern Guy on

      When you are presenting information that may adversely affect the health of the public you don’t hide behind shoddy and (potentially) deliberately vague graphs and information. You present the information you have and provide whatever interpretation is necessary to allow the public to understand what they are seeing. Hiding behind poorly developed graphics and half truths only makes it look you have something to hide. As noted by one of the experts the presentation lacked clarity AND transparency.

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    • Posted by Crap data on

      Lol no. That’s a lot of mental gymnastics to defend the city and gn’s horrible management of this situation.

      If they had good data (which appears as though they don’t because it would have been in their best interest to release it) they could have made a better dum-dum chart for us poor average Joe dum-dums, and a data rich one that they experts can use.

      Instead we get this chart that looks too complex for the Average Joes to read and lacks the valuable information that the experts need. The city gave us crap data.

      This chart was pure theater and we should be concerned until the experts see accurate data.

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    • Posted by Are you serious! on

      Are you serious! we have a right to see all the tests, not just some of the data! We have a right to find out how badly we have been poisoned and after the way this has been handled and covered up (missing information and broad statements with no data to back it up) We should all be concerned! until this data is shared!

      Will it take a lawsuit to get this information? or do they expect that they can just wait until this blows over to release this data?

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    • Posted by Concerned southerner on

      I agree with the specialists. The presentation of the data is very strange. First of all, why are they showing B, T, E, X and PHC F1, F2, F3, and F4 as RANGES on the dates shown? They would be values provided by the testing lab, not ranges.

      Second, what is North Clear Well?? I thought the hydrocarbons were found in a water mixing TANK.

      Third, do the boxes with nothing in them represent no data because no samples were taken, results shows no detection of hydrocarbons. There is a big and important difference.

      They are not being transparent, or presenting the info in an understandable way.

      I am trying to find out what the City has instructed people about flushing the distribution system found in their residence. Anyone?

    • Posted by Peter Martin on

      Well said. Let the experts gather the information first. They’ll be plenty time to review the information. There’s no conspiracy to hide information from people. They’ll be plenty of time to complete the review.

  2. Posted by Northern Guy on

    Another shemozzle created Dr. Patterson and his merry band of communications incompetents. One would think that maybe they have something hide? Kudos to Nunatsiaq News in getting independent expert evaluation of the information that was presented so that the general public can now better understand what they are and aren’t being told by those who supposedly have all the answers.

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  3. Posted by Time to go on

    The is absolutely, unequivocally embarrassing and unacceptable! The mayor needs to reflect on this situation and his incompetence, put his inflated ego aside, and step down in the best interest of residents. . Stop embarrassing yourself and your staff.

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  4. Posted by concerned on

    bad water,just like the bad gas that naujaamiut have had to use and nobody did
    anything about it a few broken down outboards atvs this summer, naujaamiut
    should send samples down south to get tested so maybe they could get
    compensated like it was years ago the govt kept denying it but a few private
    samples were sent out to labs down south and the govt finally admitted that it was bad,aging infrastructures tank farms are really dirty.

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  5. Posted by Iqaluit on

    On October 15, Dr Patterson said “The fuel is likely either diesel or kerosene, Patterson said. He said there is no evidence that other, more concerning chemicals, such as benzene, had contaminated the water.”
    “The best evidence we have available right now indicates that the risk of long-term health effects is not a concern at this time,” Patterson said.”
    Can Dr Patterson or Kenny explain why benzene was detected? “The concentration of benzene in that well on that day, for example, was 600 times higher than the maximum acceptable amount set by the federal government’s Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality, according to the department.”
    Think it’s time for Kenny to resign.
    Let’s Go Kenny!

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  6. Posted by Just go on

    Inuit deserve better than this and we need to demand better. This is why things don’t get better. Colonialists in position of power treat us like idiots. If this was Toronto the mayor would have resigned or been kicked out and none of the councillors are sticking up for us. Time for Kenny to go. He doesn’t respect Inuit.

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    • Posted by Putting this out there on

      A few years ago the Mayor of Toronto Doug Ford was filmed smoking CRACK (and had so many other known issues) and they couldn’t get ride of him.. and now his brother is the Primer of Ontario.

      But I dont think your wrong about Bell and when the next elections for Iqaluit come around hopefully the city votes in better numbers then this last territorial election.

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      • Posted by Not the same on

        Smoking crack and telling residents to smoke crack because there is nothing wrong with crack when you actually don’t know what is in crack and then not being transparent about the testing results of crack it is not the same. Resign bell!

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  7. Posted by Owned on

    Nunatsiaq News for the win! Who’s the tabloids now mayor?

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  8. Posted by S on

    100,000,000 μg per liter; that’s nearly 10g / l, equal to 10% contamination. Are ye sure Billy?

    I think we’d all be dead in minutes if there was that concentration of gasoline in the water

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    • Posted by S on

      1%; I’m fairly certain I typed 1%, not 10%. Maybe not; guessed I typed 10%. (:

      Nonetheless, at 1% we’d still be dead-dead

  9. Posted by Arg on

    The city has been in a state of being reactive instead of proactive before Kenny and Amy. 1They need better water service managers. 2There’s no backflow testing in the city. It’s not mandated. (every city in Canada has to make sure the water flows in one direction, no backwash)
    3No underground tanks (you don’t put fuel tanks below ground because they leak, same goes for water)
    4 water lines should be above ground (hear me out) the sewer is already hot… so she’s always fowling and ain’t going to freeze, you water don’t freeze cause of your circ pump right? And the main doesn’t freeze because of everyone circ pump right? And you aren’t going to burry that line lower than the permafrost, right? So have it above ground and easy to fix and monitor!!!

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  10. Posted by Man on

    I don’t understand their logic on releasing this type of information without having the data/process audited and peer reviewed. This is clearly cherry picked data to show all the issues with the water were observed/isolated in the North tank and that there’s nothing wrong with anything else. I suppose if that’s the message they wanted to convey then good job? What is the government trying to do here? Inuit deserve to know the truth and have professionals assess and report on the issues with full transparency.

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  11. Posted by Hiding on

    Who are the city and government of nunavut using as experts ??!! God let’s hope its not Kudlik who have no water experts. Media please ask more questions! This is totally not transparent and wrong.

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  12. Posted by Smells like a coverup on

    “I’m just stressed at the lack of clarity [and] the lack of transparency.”
    “You don’t present a graph without proper labelling,” she said
    Professor Miriam Diamond

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  13. Posted by Hypocrite on

    You all know if Kenny wasn’t Mayor he would be flipping out how badly the former mayors were incompetently and dishonestly handling this. There’s no way he would accept this incomplete information. No way he would let the city get away with this cover up. Double standards mang. Double f’ing stands. We kind of need a Kenny Bell double to do a Kenny Bell on Kenny Bell.

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  14. Posted by Sips on

    Isn’t the government supposed to make all of the results available? And it’s the media’s job to sift through that info and interpret it? Why isn’t the city releasing all of the information in addition to their weird presentation? Who are they to say no one but them and their experts will understand the numbers?

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