Formaldehdye emitted by processing plants in the Prince George, B.C., area could be responsible for unusually high traces of the carcinogen detected in the air. ((pachapg.ca))

Extreme levels of a toxic chemical were found in air samples from a Prince George, B.C., neighbourhood more than 18 months ago, but the community still has not been told of the danger, CBC News has learned.

Tests performed in the Millar Addition neighbourhood showed formaldehyde levels more than 18 times the acceptable level.

The Environment Ministry gathered the air samples in Prince George in July and August 2008 after years of complaints from residents about bad smells.

'I don't think there's a reason to panic' — B.C. Environment Ministry official Maureen Bilawchuk

"The [readings] … were unusual enough that they came back as a red flag," said Maureen Bilawchuk, head of the Environmental Management Section.

The B.C. government and local industry were informed of the results, but the community wasn't for fear of causing panic over results that might not be accurate, according to Bilawchuk.

"I don't think there's a reason to panic over these five very discrete samples," she said. "I don't want to say we're ignoring the situation. We want to follow up and find out what's going on."

It was important for residents to put the issue in context and realize that everything from traffic to indoor furniture can emit formaldehyde, Bilawchuk said.

Identified as carcinogen

According to Health Canada, formaldehyde in high concentrations is a carcinogen and contributes to asthma and allergies, especially in children. In lower concentrations, it can irritate and burn the eyes, nose, and throat.

Although B.C. Environment Ministry officials believe the 2008 test results were so high they might have been inaccurate, no new tests have been ordered.

One of the Prince George tests was taken in Fort George Park, a popular playground and water park next to a children's science museum and daycare. The samples showed 1,200 micrograms of formaldehyde per cubic metre in a one-hour period.

Another set of samples were taken a few blocks away at Patricia Boulevard and Taylor Drive, a residential street in middle-class Millar Addition, which is also near the Fraser River and the city's downtown. That test indicated 950 micrograms per cubic metre, also in a one-hour period.

B.C.'s acceptable level is 65 micrograms per cubic metre.

Re-testing in Prince George would cost between $6,000 and $12,000, but the government has not committed funding to the followup, Bilawchuk said.

Local activists have pointed to local pulp mills and an oil refinery as possible sources of the pollution.

With files from Betsy Trumpener