A civilian RCMP employee in Winnipeg says the police agency mishandled the issue of lead contamination from its indoor firing range and kept her in the dark about it.

Reports obtained by CBC News reveal the RCMP in Manitoba knew about potential problems with lead exposure from its firing range in the basement of "D" Division headquarters on Winnipeg's Portage Avenue as early as 2000.

The range continued to be used until March 2016.

While the RCMP acknowledge the history of potential lead problems, the force's external safety reports have always found the firing range to be safe.

But experts say lead can migrate from a firing range to other parts of the building, and RCMP admit it was not until 2013 that they realized employees were accessing files in a room which was adjacent to the range.

"They knew it was dangerous, they didn't tell anyone," said Bonnie Muth, an administrative worker who regularly accessed files from the room since 1997.

"I didn't find out until August of 2015, when they said the files and boxes were contaminated with lead."

Levels 21 times what U.S. Navy considers safe

Two years earlier, in 2013, RCMP asked Muth to box her files in the room because the firing range was about to undergo maintenance.

"I didn't think much of it. They had me put on a white painter's suit, a little drywall mask, and gave me rubber gloves. I just figured because it was so dirty in there, and it was really dirty in there by then — that it was just because of all the dust," Muth said. "You could write your name in it."

She fears the dust that covered the room and her filing cabinets over the years was contaminated with lead from the firing range and may have affected her health.

RCMP employee blows whistle on lead contamination risk from firing range3:33

According to the World Health Organization, exposure to lead can cause "long-term harm in adults, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage." In young children, it can impair neurological development.

An August 2015 report by Pinchin Ltd., an environmental-consulting company, stated "lead wipe results indicate that there is significant lead contamination" in the room Muth routinely visited.

It found lead levels on a shelf in the storage room to be 21 times above what the U.S. Navy considers safe — a standard the study used because it could not find Canadian standards for acceptable levels of lead contamination on surfaces.

'High potential' for contamination: 2000 report

Multiple environmental reports spanning more than a decade point to lead being an issue in the subterranean range and surrounding areas.

As far back as 2000, an environmental audit report for RCMP "D" Division headquarters in Winnipeg said, "There is a high potential for lead contamination in the firing range."

That report called for further sampling of surfaces and materials to "ensure that the extent of lead contamination in the firing ranges is known and that adequate safety plans and operating plans are implemented."

Another report in 2007 said "the lead contamination in the existing ductwork was much more serious than anticipated."

The range has not operated since it was closed in March 2016 for a planned upgrade "to meet all current safety standards," an RCMP spokesperson told CBC News in an email.

"This update is not related to any lead concerns," the spokesperson said.

RCMP D Division generic

The firing range in RCMP 'D' Division headquarters in Winnipeg has not operated since it was closed in March 2016 for a planned upgrade 'to meet all current safety standards,' an RCMP spokesperson told CBC News in an email. (Bert Savard/CBC)

But an all-staff email sent by RCMP management April 7, 2016, said, "Due to potential health concerns related to lead contamination recently identified in the 'D' Division Headquarters penthouse mechanical room and sub-basement (to include the indoor firing range, all storage areas/rooms and hallways) access to these areas is restricted effective immediately. Barriers have been erected to limit access and signage has been put in place."  

Muth believes she was needlessly exposed to elevated levels of lead and is angry RCMP did not notify workers about the issue earlier.

"It's important for people to know the truth. Morally, ethically, it's wrong not to tell people the truth, especially if it could put a risk to them down the road," Muth said.

The RCMP declined an interview but agreed to answer questions via email. CBC asked the police force who it notified of potential risks at each point when a new report indicated risk, since 2000.

RCMP did not answer those specific questions.

Reports say 'building is safe': RCMP

The force says it did not know staff were accessing the room where Muth's files were until 2015.

"In May 2015, the RCMP Safety Office became aware of an employee accessing a restricted room where there existed a potential for a safety issue, namely exposure to lead from the firing range," the RCMP statement said.

The RCMP "took corrective actions and launched a comprehensive investigation as soon as it became aware of the potential health and safety issue," according to the statement.

"As part of the investigation, independent experts, including certified industrial hygienists, were brought in to assess the risk to human health and test the environment for lead."

RCMP said that the amount of airborne lead "was well within acceptable standards," but "there was surface-level contamination identified, which was expected in the service room to the bullet trap. Further testing determined there was no transfer of lead to the employee's normal workspace."

When external reports on the issue were reviewed by occupational safety officers, the statement said they concluded, "the risk of exposure from lead found on surfaces was deemed low. They have also concluded that based on the reports, the building is safe."

Dr. Ray Copes

Dr. Ray Copes, chief of environmental and occupational health in Ontario, said a 2014 study there found lead dust from an indoor firing range can move into other parts of the building. (CBC)

The RCMP said it is "committed to ensuring the health and safety of every person it employs."

Earlier this month, the RCMP issued a tender for an upgrade of the facility. Bidding closed on Oct. 24.

The RCMP has 23 indoor firing ranges from St. John's to Vancouver. It says only two of them have required lead remediation: the one in Winnipeg and one in Ottawa.

'Nobody was paying attention'

Issues around lead in firing ranges are not unique to Winnipeg, nor to the RCMP.

An indoor range operated by the Canadian military in Corner Brook, N.L., was closed temporarily in 2012 over concerns about lead dust.

A 2014 report by Public Health Ontario concluded people using recreational indoor firing ranges and their families "can be exposed to hazardous amounts of airborne lead if proper controls are not in place."

The report said family members can be affected if lead-contaminated dust is tracked home on clothing and shoes.

"Some of the ranges that we investigated, there was movement of lead dust out of the room where the firing range was located and into other parts of those buildings, so clearly the potential is there," said Dr. Ray Copes, chief of environmental and occupational health in Ontario.

Copes said even small amounts of lead exposure can be dangerous.

"These days we are concerned about subtle effects of lead, even at very low levels of exposure, on things like blood pressure in adults and intellectual development in children," said Copes.

"Workers should be made aware of any hazardous materials that they are coming into contact with in the workplace," Copes said.

RCMP members have to undergo annual firing proficiency qualifications, which means regular practice. Some units, like emergency response teams, practice on a continual basis.

The National Police Federation's Brian Sauvé said the lead issue arising from the Winnipeg firing range is alarming.

CBC

Brian Sauvé with the National Police Federation called the lead issue arising from the Winnipeg firing range alarming. (CBC)

"Nobody was paying attention, is what it suggests to me. They were being blissfully ignorant and willfully ignorant about the safety of their employees," Sauvé said.

Sauvé would like to see consultants review the RCMP's other 22 indoor ranges to make sure they are up to code.

"The conclusion we've drawn a number of times is that when reports are unfavourable to the RCMP … they get shelved, they get ignored, and eventually the thought is they will go away," Sauvé said.

Muth said her concerns were not properly investigated.

"It was like they were saying, 'It's not a big deal. Let's sweep it under the table,' which is what they've been trying to do. That's one of the reasons I came forward," she said.

Muth said though she now feels disappointed and betrayed by the organization, she is still proud to work for the RCMP.

"That's one of the reasons why I went to RCMP," she said.

"They help people. They make sure things are safe for people."

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