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
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
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
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
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,
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
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 American 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
Canadians can still repeal NAFTA. For information
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,
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
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
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
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
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
· Antidepressants can disrupt spawning behaviour in
· Musk accumulates in the fatty tissues of aquatic
organisms, which leads to bioaccumulation as it moves up the
· Certain cardiac drugs can prevent aquatic organisms
from expelling contaminants from their systems, thus
increasing the toxic effects of all the PPCPs they are
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
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
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.