Cambridge residents living near TCE contamination fear health problems

Residents of the Bishop Street community in Preston in Cambridge say they have a number of ongoing issues they believe is linked to a TCE contamination of the ground beneath their homes.

'I just don't feel safe living in that house anymore,' says one Bishop Street resident

Linda Watson and Axel Meerman pull up their pant legs to reveal similar rashes on their legs. They said their doctors are unsure what is causing it. Watson and Meerman both live in the Bishop Street community in Cambridge. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Neighbours Axel Meerman and Linda Watson stand side-by-side comparing similar rashes on their legs.

"My doctor in Toronto at Sunnybrook is keeping it under control," Watson said.

"Mine isn't," Meerman said.

As they pulled up their pant legs, the other five people gathered in Tracy Hipel's Cambridge home react.

"Look at that," former neighbour Debbie Vitez and Hipel said, at the exact same time.

Those in the room suspect they know the cause of the rash: Contaminated groundwater and soil.

Meerman and Watson don't live side by side, but they do live in the Bishop Street area of Preston in Cambridge - an area that has known since 2005 the groundwater and soil under their homes is contaminated with trichlorethylene, or TCE.

The Ministry of the Environment (MOE) has said it does not have a timeline for when the area will be completely remediated. An update for residents at an open house is expected in late May.

The residents say they continue to live with a number of issues 12 years after the MOE confirmed the contamination and they'd like the city to do more to help them. That includes helping them get their property assessments lowered or giving them a break on their taxes, as well as keeping them better informed of remediation efforts.

Residents in the Bishop Street community in Cambridge are concerned about their health, their homes and want to know when a TCE contamination discovered in 2004 will be cleaned up. (Google StreetView)

Other city residents need to know

Many of the homes are connected to soil vapour extraction units, which are kept in backyard sheds. The unit uses a vacuum system to pull toxic gas from dry wells dug in neighbouring properties, filters the gas and releases the cleaned air.

Recently, some residents who have the sheds say they want to shut off the extraction units and have them moved out of the backyards.

Meerman would like to see them moved onto the boulevard on his street.

"Let the rest of the city of Cambridge see them, understand what's really going on," he said.

Meerman has already shut the power off to his shed once.

"I'd just had enough. And they called me up and said, 'Hey Mr. Meerman, did you shut the power off in the shed?' I said, 'Yeah, I did.' He said, 'Do you mind turning it back on?' And I'm going, 'Why?' 'Because, it's our stuff and you've got an agreement,'" he said was the response. "I don't have an agreement with anybody to have that shed."

Meerman, who moved to the area in early 2016, said he is also frustrated by the lack of privacy in his own backyard because someone comes to check on the shed to ensure it's working property twice a week.

Then, there's the whistle.

"Our shed produced a whistle. It's 24/7. It's always. And what it is in the air coming off the vacuum system that sits on the top of the shed," he said.

He has also given up on having a nice lawn or a garden.

"Weeds are the only thing that grow."

'I knew there was something wrong'

"I knew there was something wrong with my house before we were told," Watson told CBC News.

"My husband told me I was crazy. I wasn't."

She said she and her family have multiple health concerns. Both she and her dog, which she had to put down, had Cushing Disease, a pituitary gland condition. She has also had tumours in her pituitary glands.

She said she's "petrified" her neighbour will cut the power to the soil vapour extraction unit to which she's connected.

"The fact that they might get together and shut it off scares me, but then again it might kick somebody in the butt , and get things going," Watson said.

When the contamination was discovered, she said she and her family were out of their house for four months during initial remediation efforts.

Some of the residents were paid out of a legal settlement. She said her family received $3,000.

"People think, 'Oh you guys got a really good settlement. You guys all made money," she said.

"Nobody made money. Even money-wise, we all lost something and we have no safety."

She has considered moving, but her husband doesn't want to, Watson said.

She's also concerned about selling her home to an unsuspecting buyer.

"I know that it's damaged us," she said. "If I sold it to an older couple I wouldn't mind, but to a young family, I'd feel really bad."

Homebuyers told contamination being addressed

Debbie Vitez is a realtor in Cambridge and writes the blog Cambridge Advocate.

She used to live in the neighbourhood and said when the contamination was first revealed, other realtors were asking her for details.

Tracy Hipel of Cambridge is seen in his backyard earlier this year. The shed behind him houses a soil vapour extraction unit. He has to ensure clear access to the shed at all times as an employee visits the shed twice a week. Hipel has acted as an advocate for many in the neighbourhood in trying to get updates on remediation efforts. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

"I haven't had a phone call in probably two years. So, what happened? I'm not condemning the realtors, but somebody's playing it down," she said, adding homebuyers are being told the contamination issue is being addressed, so it's not a concern.

"It's a catch 22. [The residents are] living in homes that's killing them, they can't sell it because of the controversy."

She and her husband, who had Parkinson's and has since died of cancer, had also left their home during the early days of the clean-up efforts.

"We were feeling really good, clear headed. We walked back in that house and we both had massive headaches," she said. 

'I just don't feel safe'

Bev Burr said her basement walls are caving in, she's had flooding and the foundation of her house is starting to give way.

"I'm blaming it on all the digging that went on around our home back in 2005," Burr said. "But they'll probably say no, that had nothing to do with it."

Burr said her family has had health problems, too. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 and survived. Her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2009 and just recently went into a long-term care facility.

"Who knows whether it's caused my cancer or my husband's Alzheimer's. Who knows that? That was the saying right from the beginning, chemicals can cause sickness of any kind. We don't know what we're facing," she said.

She has had three dogs and all of them have died of cancer.

"I just don't feel safe living in that house anymore."