Manitoba

New test results show lead contamination in St. Boniface gardens up to 10 times recommended level

The residents association in St. Boniface is demanding action after a new batch of test results show more contaminated lead levels in home gardens in the Winnipeg neighbourhood, including one that is 10 times higher than national safety guidelines.

5 residents got letters in April saying their soil samples exceeded national safety guidelines

Theresa Cwik with her rhubarb, the last remaining vegetable in her garden. She refused to plant anything this year after getting a notice her soil was contaminated with lead. (Jeff Stapleton / CBC)

The residents association in St. Boniface is demanding action after a new batch of test results show more contaminated lead levels in home gardens in the Winnipeg neighbourhood, including one that has lead levels 10 times higher than national safety guidelines.

A letter went out in April to five residents in south St. Boniface informing them that a sample taken in August 2017 came back with levels that exceed national safety guidelines.

Darlene Thurston found out in April that a sample taken from her backyard showed lead levels of 1,663 parts per million —  more than 10 times the maximum level recommended by guidelines for soil quality from the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment.

"You go for a walk, you are breathing this in," she said. "We have been at this residence for 47 years."

Another resident who got the letter is Theresa Cwik, who is also the vice-president of the South St. Boniface Residents Association.

Samples from her garden came back at 166 parts per million, still above the recommended guideline of 140 ppm for residential soil. She says she will not be planting a garden this year.

"I am not sure of how much lead is here and if anything I plant is safe to eat. And the residents in the area are all in the same boat. We don't know what to do," she said.  "I'd like to see proof it is safe."

Results of 1st test results released last year

Questions surrounding the quality of the soil in the industrial area of St. Boniface first came to light in the summer of 2017, when Shirley Thompson, an associate professor with the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Manitoba, took soil samples in the area.

She found high levels of lead, cadmium, copper and zinc, among other contaminants.

Researchers from the University of Manitoba then started collecting soil samples from more than 100 residential properties as well as parks, ditches and streams in the areas bordering Mission Industrial Park.

Last summer, letters went out to 24 homes informing residents they had heavy metal contamination in their garden.

This latest letter has the residents association wondering when the province will take action by replacing the soil. They also want to know if there will be testing for residents who live around the area that produced the positive contamination results.

Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires says it is safe to eat vegetables from St. Boniface gardens, as long as you take the proper precautions. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires says a private consultant is currently reviewing the issue of lead in soil, but could not commit to when the results of the review will be released.

She says as long as residents take the proper precautions, the lead levels are not a concern.

"When you have vegetables that are coming out of a garden, if you are scraping the peels off the carrot, if you are scraping the peels off a potato, then there is no evidence of contamination in that edible product," she said.

"I would simply take the advice of public health officials … to handle my vegetables very carefully."

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont says residents deserve better answers from the government, and this is yet another example of a government mishandling the issue of soil quality.

Last summer, Squires was accused of sitting on St. Boniface soil test results for weeks.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont says St. Boniface residents need more answers from the government. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

As well, the former NDP government was heavily criticized for burying a report about lead contamination in Point Douglas and at Weston School.

That report was completed in 2008, but only came to light as part of a CBC investigation into lead contamination in the area.

"There have been … seven NDP and PC governments that have done tests," said Lamont.

"They've known about it, they sat on results and they haven't acted. So the time for action is long overdue."

'That is very high': prof

Health Canada says even very small amounts of lead in the bloodstream can have harmful health effects, and children are especially at risk if lead is ingested.

Francis Zvomuya is the University of Manitoba soil scientist who has led the collection of samples since 2017.

He said the test results have to be released in batches due to lack of funding from the provincial government. After they collected the samples in 2017, they were told they have the funding to get about 100 of them analyzed.

Earlier this year, they were given the go-ahead to send the remaining samples to the lab for analysis.

Francis Zvomuya, a professor with the University of Manitoba's soil sciences department, says gardeners concerned about contamination should wash vegetables, plant their gardens in raised garden beds and use new soil in their gardens. (Walther Bernal/CBC News)

Zvomuya said generally, he wasn't surprised by the results of the latest batch of tests after what he saw last summer, but was surprised by the one sample that was over 1,600 ppm.

"That is very high," he said. "I don't know why it would be so extremely high like this."

A third batch of tests — this one of vegetables from gardens in the area — is still waiting for Zvomuya's analysis. Since he does the analysis as volunteer work and relies on students to help him, it take time to get it done. 

He says the best remedy for gardeners concerned about contamination is to wash vegetables, plant gardens in raised garden beds and use new soil in the garden.

About the Author

Kristin Annable is a member of CBC's investigative unit based in Winnipeg. She can be reached at kristin.annable@cbc.ca

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