Pesticides, pollutants threaten Canadian tap water, researchers suggest

Experts say Canadians in smaller communities especially may be rolling the dice every time they drink water from the tap.

The water coming out of Mildred Dyck's tap doesn't worry her despite what happened in 2001. That's when parasites contaminated the supply for North Battleford, Sask., where she lives and 50 people ended up in hospital. Another 2,000 got sick, including Dyck's sister, her sister's son-in-law and her sister's grandchildren.

The crisis in North Battleford came not long after the deaths of seven people in Walkerton, Ont., who died after that town's water became contaminated from manure spread on a nearby farm.

"If I couldn't go to a tap and get a drink of water, I don't know what I'd do," said Dyck, 61, who works as a cleaner at the provincial building in the city of 14,000.

"I don't really give it much thought actually. I figure North Battleford's got to have clean water. Bottled water just doesn't taste the same."

But experts say Canadians in smaller communities may be rolling the dice every time they drink water from the tap.

"Big city water in this country is absolutely fine, but the problem with assuring safe, potable water is that it takes a minimum degree of microbiological knowledge and engineering skill and a supporting infrastructure," said Harry Swain, who chaired the research advisory panel for the public inquiry into Walkerton.

"Doing that requires you have a large enough customer base so you can afford the high-quality, relatively expensive services."

Last May, the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported there were 1,760 boil-water advisories across the country — excluding those for 93 First Nations.

Small water facilities at risk: researcher

Swain, a director of the Canadian Institute for Climate Studies and research associate at the University of Victoria's Centre for Global Studies, said 80 to 90 per cent of the water treatment facilities in Ontario are too small to be safe or efficient. The situation is even worse in British Columbia.

"Ontario is a paragon of sanity compared to British Columbia, where you have a third of the population and 4,000 water suppliers," he explained in an interview with the Canadian Press.

"Every small town, every little place has its own jealously guarded water systems, most of which have inadequate treatment," said Swain.

"The real problem with Canadian drinking water quality is we have far too many rinky-dink suppliers and they're too small to produce the level of safety that our society seems to demand."

Pollutants, pesticides pose health threats

But even sophisticated water treatment systems are helpless when it comes to removing pesticides, pharmaceuticals, antibiotics and hormones.

The University of Lethbridge's Alice Hontela, who has a Canada Research Chair in ecotoxicology, has been studying the effects of agricultural pollutants, pesticides and fertilizers on fish in the Oldman River and South Saskatchewan River basin in southern Alberta.

With the run-off from intensive livestock operations such as cattle feedlots and huge irrigation networks dotting the arid farmland, there is ample opportunity for pollutants to reach the water supply, she said.

"They can have effects on reproduction — some pharmaceuticals, estrogens, testosterone, some pesticides. The endocrine system is the one that produces hormones and it is very, very sensitive, and there are chemicals in the water that influence the endocrine system of fish," she said.

"I think the reproductive effects are potentially important and we do hear about human fertility issues, sperm count in males decreasing, problems with learning difficulties in children, allergies, asthma, cancers — there are so many things we don't have an explanation for."

Hontela said Canadians are naive if they assume water treatment systems will pick up harmful bodies. Swain agrees that even top-notch water systems are lacking.

"Those systems will catch quite a few numbers of nasties like oils and very complex large-chain molecules like PCBs. They don't do well at all with these endocrine disruptors," he said.

"Most pesticides and fertilizers that get into our streams and rivers never pass through a sewage treatment plant. It is really, really serious."