Is our water safe to drink?


First aired on The Current (19/06/13)

On any given day there are an estimated 1,500 boil water advisories in effect across Canada. Some are in effect for hours, some for days -- and some have lasted decades. Portugal Cove South, in Newfoundland and Labrador, has been under a boil water advisory for 29 years, since 1984.

According to Chris Wood, co-author of Down the Drain: How We Are Failing to Protect Our Water, a lot of illness is caused by unsafe drinking water in Canada. "Across the country, roughly 500 times a day, somebody visits an ER [hospital emergency room] or visits a doctor for some kind of gastrointestinal distress which basically comes down to their water," he told The Current in a recent interview.


Wood said that our water treatment systems have done "a pretty good job of dealing with the conventional threats." But he pointed out that there's a new set of threats from chemical products. It's estimated that there are "as many as 80,000 individual chemical products which are in use in Canadian homes and workplaces."

People don't necessarily notice the effects these products are having. Wood cited the fact that the proportion of male and female babies born annually in Canada has changed, and "the prime suspects...are what are called endocrine-disrupting compounds. There are thousands of these. They're used in hair products, they're found in pharmaceuticals, [in] many of our pesticides."

According to Wood, "the St. Lawrence River tests positive for about a dozen pharmaceuticals. The Fraser River, on the West Coast, tested positive for more than 200 pharmaceuticals and other high potency, man-made chemicals." And he warns that our water-treatment systems are "essentially defenceless against more complex chemicals."

Although these compounds tend to be present in only trace amounts, Wood believes they still have an effect. "If a woman is exposed to some of these compounds at or around conception, it has an effect," he said. "It's very, very small amounts, striking people at particularly vulnerable moments and having outsize effects."

In Down the Drain, Cooper also examines water quality on First Nations reserves. Water is usually a provincial or municipal responsibility, but native reserves are "the one geographic and social area in the country exposed directly to the federal Crown's standard of water stewardship," he said. As such, they offer "a revealing window" into how the federal government takes care of our water -- which is "absolutely appallingly," in Wood's opinion.

"If you live on an Indian reserve in this country, the chances that your water is at high risk are better than one in two," he said. "That is, you have slightly less than a 50-50 chance of having securely safe water in your tap."

Over the decades, a succession of federal governments has offloaded jurisdictional responsibility for water stewardship to the provinces. "There is very, very little federal oversight at all of our water safety," Wood said, adding that water safety standards aren't consistent across the country.

The Current also spoke with John Cooper, director of the Water, Air and Climate Change Bureau of Health Canada, who stated that water treatment is best left to local and regional authorities.

Not according to Wood. He said that countries where water safety is under national jurisdiction do a better job, and pointed to Europe as "probably the state of the art in this...they've established double sets of binding standards for water. There are standards for what you can release into water and there are standards for the condition of water in nature."

The Current also spoke with Robert Haller, executive director of the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association. He argued that boil water advisories are a sign that "the regulations are in place, that the continual monitoring is underway, and they're capturing issues immediately."

For Haller, jurisdiction is not as much of an issue as money. Though local municipalities have the responsibility for water, "all the money is at the provincial and federal level...It's not about a change in who's doing the regulating. It's about access to the funding."

When asked about the prevalence of high potency chemicals in the water, Haller said that it's a continual topic of discussion at conferences, but that the industry has to balance the cost against the health risks. As for whether these chemicals pose a problem, even in trace amounts, Haller said more study is needed. "I think a lot more work has to be done."

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