The three territorial capitals — Iqaluit, Whitehorse, and Yellowknife — test for less than half of the contaminants on Health Canada's drinking water guidelines, a CBC News investigation has found.

CBC News surveyed 18 cities across the country, and found the three territorial capitals are among the cities that test for the fewest number of contaminants. 

"We are just super lucky that we can just pump water out of the ground and drink it." - Dave Albisser

Some of those potential contaminants can cause health risks such as cancer with long-term exposure.

Whitehorse tests for 33 of the 75 contaminants for which Health Canada has drinking water guidelines.

"I think Whitehorse tap water is some of the best in the world," says mayor Dan Curtis.

"I've got family and friends who visit and actually take water home, so I don't think you need bottled water when you've got Whitehorse tap water."

City water manager Dave Albisser agrees. He says the water from the city's underground wells are monitored strictly by Yukon's Environmental Health regulators. As for the 75 substances listed in Health Canada guidelines, Albisser says the city has tested extensively to prove most don't exist in Whitehorse.

Dave Albisser

Dave Albisser, manager of water and water services with the City of Whitehorse, says water from the city's underground wells are monitored strictly by Yukon's Environmental Health regulators. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

"We do test our wells when they are first drilled, and if there is nothing there, which there never has been, then we don't continue testing on a routine basis."

Albisser says the tests are expensive, and most of the chemicals not routinely tested for are agricultural pesticides never used in the territory.

"We don't have the intensive agriculture and intensive industry that brings a lot of these nasty chemicals. Secondly, we use ground water, not surface water." says Albisser.

"We are just super lucky that we can just pump water out of the ground and drink it."

No risk

The Northwest Territories government requires communities to test for 23 of the 75 contaminants listed by Health Canada. Iqaluit tests for 20.

Peter Workman, the Northwest Territories' Chief Environment Health Officer, says the government has to base testing on a realistic risk assessment.

"We made decisions around relevancy," he said. "We can enforce any of those guidelines at any time if we needed to, if we felt there was an actual risk.

"There is no chance of a risk for some of these chemicals. They were industrial chemicals that were only used in southern Canada. There is no risk of them being transferred here. They were never used in the territory."

However, Eva Pip, a professor at the University of Winnipeg professor specializing in water quality and toxicology, says pollution is universal "because you have air currents that travel all around the planet, and material gets deposited everywhere."

Global pollution

"I've done work in northern Manitoba looking at 450 contaminants and there have been some tremendous surprises, many things that we didn't expect to find at all because it was supposed to be a quote unquote 'pristine environment.'

"And the attitude there also was: 'Well you know, it's far from concentrations of urbanization, agriculture, and hardly any industry.' And yet we still found a lot of things like metals. We found radioisotopes. We found some pesticides.

"They should be testing for everything, maybe not all the time, but at least on a periodic basis rather than never testing them at all," she said.

"How much is a human life worth?"

Craig Scott, executive director of Ecology North in Yellowknife, says he is concerned about potential contamination of northern drinking water by global pollution.

"I would like to see them test these things and give us the test results and show us nothing is there," he said.

What's being tested in city water?