Residents of a small town southeast of Ottawa could be without water for weeks as officials wait on chemical tests for possible contamination of the town's drinking water after Sunday's cheese factory fire.

The Eastern Ontario Health Unit for Prescott and Russell issued a notice Tuesday saying the water should not be consumed or used in St. Albert, a small community of about 600 people and 250 households about a 45-minute drive southeast of Ottawa.

The notice comes after a fire Sunday destroyed the iconic St. Albert fromagerie in St. Albert, Ont., famous for its cheese curds.

 

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The former St. Albert Cheese Co-op is now reduced to rubble after a fire destroyed the factory on Sunday. (Alistair Steele/CBC)

Residents are being advised not to drink water from their wells, take showers or wash their clothes due to possible groundwater contamination from the fire. They can flush their toilets, though.

Boiling water is also not advised because it does not ensure the removal of chemical contaminants, the health unit said.

Chemical contamination more difficult to clear from water

Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, the medical officer of health for the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, said some of the water taken for testing smelt of smoke, which suggested possible contamination.

These tests, collected by the Ontario Ministry of Environment, are only to determine what types of chemicals could be in the water supply.

While boiling water can eliminate bacteria like E. coli, potentially harmful chemicals are not as easy to filter out.

"Sometimes these chemicals take longer for them to get away, so the challenge that we have is that we have a bit of an unknown of what we're going to find," he added, saying once the tests are in, health officials will decide on the next steps.

Until further notice, residents in the community are being told to use bottled water or an alternative source of water for drinking, washing food or brushing their teeth. The Canadian Red Cross is assisting with the distribution of water and doing door-to-door assessments to make sure everyone has bottled water.

Water tests to take 3 to 4 days

The water tests are expected to take at least three or four days, according to Roumeliotis, but water might not be safe to use for a longer period.

Roumeliotis said a fire could contaminate water if toxins from burning wood seep into the ground and contaminate water that flows into private wells.

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Dr. Paul Roumeliotis of the Eastern Ontario Health Unit for Prescott and Russell says the water had a smell of smoke when officials took it for testing. (CBC)

"Most of the people in this area are on private wells. We can't guarantee that their wells have not been contaminated by sort of an underwater, underground seepage of these chemicals," said Roumeliotis.

The fire that destroyed much of the St. Albert cheese co-operative was also a cause for concern because the plant used chemicals such as ammonia.

The cause of the fire is still unknown.

The St. Albert fromagerie has been a foundation of the small community. Some families have sent five generations of workers to the factory since it was founded in 1894, according to the factory manager.