Residents in St. Boniface are wondering whether their garden-grown veggies are safe to eat after testing showed high levels of lead, copper, zinc and cadmium in their soil.

"It makes things a little worrisome," south St. Boniface resident Gary Tessier told CBC News. "You think you're in a safe little bubble, and then your bubble is popped and exposed."

The St. Boniface Residents' Association asked University of Manitoba researchers to help deal with their concerns about Industrial Metals, a metal recycling plant in south St. Boniface. Neighbours have complained in recent years about the dust and noise from the plant. 

"The findings were very high levels [of chemicals] in some areas, exceeding industrial standards," said Dr. Shirley Thompson, an associate professor with the natural resources Institute at the U of M, who helped conduct the soil testing research.

"So a number of samples, for lead, for copper were exceeded. And then one for sediment for other chemicals."

In some cases, the levels exceeded Canadian standards by 3-15 times the recommended limits. 

Thompson said she was surprised by the numbers. "It's not easy to get such high results … I've sampled waste sites that don't get those high levels.

"This is showing there was some major dumping occurring for that standard to be passed."

Tessier said while soil from his garden was not among the test sites, a garden across the road was.

"I've been residing here 35 years, cultivating a little garden here, a little organic space to eat good food," he said. "Now I'm finding out what I'm eating is questionable.

"I don't know all the science, but I know that there's a possibility for what I thought was a healthy food not being healthy."

Testing reveals toxic heavy metals in St. Boniface soil2:22

Industrial Metals responds

In an emailed statement, Industrial Metals co-owner Dan Chisick said "it is important for you to know that our company is one of  more than two dozen industrial operations in the Mission Industrial Park." He said the industrial park has been in operation "since the early 1900s"

Chisick also said his company operates "under the stringent guidelines of an environmental licence issued by Manitoba Sustainable Development."

"We are routinely inspected and tested and work closely with the department on a year-round basis to ensure we are compliant, which we are."

Soil testing begins

Soil sampling began after an air quality test done by the province last year showed elevated chemical levels in the neighbourhood, Thompson said, and residents pointed their fingers at Industrial Metals. However, the previous test did not take samples from inside the company's grounds. 

This test used samples from around the neighbourhood and right outside the facility, Thompson said. Different samples showed levels exceeding Canadian standards of lead, cadmium, copper and zinc, among others. The highest levels were right beside the factory.

"For lead, we all know that there is no safe limit," Thompson said, "so lead is a real concern. It has neurological aspects, it affects our nervous system. It's also a developmental hazard. So for pregnant women and young children, it's the most concerning.

"It's not a smoking gun necessarily but it is very proximate. It looks like it would warrant further investigation."

Thompson met this week with Bruce Gray, deputy minister of sustainable development to deliver the results. She said he was concerned.

A spokesperson for the province said "Manitoba Sustainable Development has not been provided with Dr. Thompson's complete report. However, we will review it once it is provided."

Soil testing urged

More testing needs to be done by the province, Thompson said, adding she believes the city also needs more air quality monitoring sites than the current three.

Residents who garden in the neighbourhood and don't bring in their own soil should have theirs tested, she said, especially for lead: "If you're a resident you're going to be eating that food every year, and it's going to have long-term effects."

Tessier said he wonders whether local industry will take any responsibility. 

With files from Erin Brohman and Dereck Doherty