Their water poisoned, fed up residents demand answers about toxic fire foam
Chemicals detected in well water near Smiths Falls, Ont., same as those used to douse nearby fire
More than eight months after fire destroyed a flea market near Smiths Falls, Ont., the wells of a dozen nearby residents were poisoned with dangerous toxins, and questions still swirl about the regulation of firefighting foam commonly used to smother flames.
The Rideau Valley Marketplace — and everything inside — burned to the ground shortly after 5 a.m. on Nov. 6, 2016.
Through his front room window across Highway 43, Cory Read captured the destruction on video. Read, his wife, Elyse Smith, who was six months pregnant, and the couple's four-year-old daughter watched as firefighters from several rural departments struggled to contain the spreading flames.
"I wasn't so much worried about the flames coming across the road, but the smoke. There was a lot of smoke," Read recalled.
The smoke would be the least of his worries.
But the water from their faucets soon turned dirty and smelly, and was accompanied by a strange foam.
"When you turned the water on, the bubbles would run up from your fingertips to your elbow," said Gail Read, Cory's mother, who owns the home. "Very foamy water."
The local public health unit issued a precautionary do not drink advisory the day after the fire.
Ten days later, the medical officer of health, Dr. Paula Stewart, advised that residents "not consume their well water and not to use their well water in ways that it may be aerosolised and inhaled".
That meant no taking showers, or even flushing toilets.
"Chemicals contaminating the water include those burned in the building during the fire, combustion product and [toxins] from firefighting foam used," said Stewart in a letter to residents. It was the first time an official had suggested to them that the foam used to douse the flames might be linked to the contamination of their well water.
'A huge price'
Now, more than eight months after the fire, the water Read and his neighbours use for drinking, cooking and bathing comes once a week in a truck, paid for by the flea market's insurance company.
If they needed fire foam to do that, there's a huge price to be paid.- Gail Read, affected homeowner
On the advice of provincial officials, hot water tanks and other appliances that came into contact with the toxic water have been replaced.
Homeowners, including Gail Read, are still afraid of the chemicals lurking under the surface.
Perfluoroalkylated substances, or PFAS, are synthetic chemicals commonly found in fire-suppressing foam, the use of which has been controversial and the subject of several lawsuits in the U.S. due to links to potential negative health effects, including cancer.
The MPP for Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington, Randy Hillier, said the situation his constituents on Highway 43 are facing raises serious questions.
"If you or I were using products that would contaminate the groundwater, we would be in violation of the law and we'd be dealt with severely," said Hillier.
Former volunteer firefighter David Stevens was among the homeowners at a public meeting held in the township of Drummond/North Elmsley on Nov. 23, a week after residents received the letter from the medical officer of health.
Stevens stood up and asked representatives from Ontario's Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change whether they knew what kind of firefighting foam had been used at the flea market fire.
Rumours had been circulating that one of the fire departments involved in putting out the flames had used foam that contained a level of a toxic chemical beyond the allowable limit.
The ministry officials told Stevens they had no information about the contents of the foam used that morning.
Foam 'environmentally friendly,' chiefs claim
One thing was known: The fire at the flea market couldn't be extinguished with water alone, and firefighters were growing concerned. The burning property was full of old tires and containers of unknown chemicals, and needed to be put out.
Another fire chief on the scene, Normand Beauchamp from the Smiths Falls Fire Department, agreed the fire was "very intense," and said "water had no effect." He also told CBC News the foam his firefighters use is "biodegradable" and "safe for the environment."
But those claims appear to contradict the ministry's conclusions after testing was carried out on wells and groundwater near the site of the fire.
"Obviously there's some level of those contaminants in there, in those foams," said Steve Burns, district manager with the Ministry of the Environment. "The insurance company did collect a sample of the foams and was able to identify these same compounds in it."
Environment Canada sets limits
Environment Canada sets limits on the amount of toxic chemicals allowed in firefighting foam. But it appears even foam that conforms to the regulations can be toxic, and can still contaminate groundwater, rendering it unsafe to drink for several months.
Public health officials involved in the aftermath of the flea market fire aren't questioning the regulations, or second-guessing the way firefighters deployed the foam.
"The houses were so close, their job is to protect lives and property. I can't say what firefighters should do," said Dr. Paula Stewart.
But the local MPP does see a problem, and he's looking for answers.
Province doesn't approve foam
It could be a lonely watch. According to Ontario's Ministry of the Environment, use and regulation of the foam doesn't fall under its jurisdiction — unless its use causes environmental damage.
"The Ontario government doesn't approve firefighting foams, that's something you could take up with the fire marshal's office, et cetera," suggested Steve Burns. "For us, we know it was a concern once it was released into the environment, and we've been pursuing that."
For us, we know it was a concern once it was released into the environment, and we've been pursuing that.- Steve Burns, Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change
The Office of the Fire Marshal told CBC it doesn't monitor use of firefighting foam either, and confirmed any environmental impact would fall under the ministry's jurisdiction.
Other countries including Australia and the U.S. have lower safe exposure limits than those set by Environment Canada when it comes to the man-made toxins in fire-suppressing foam.
Researchers who study the impact of the foam, including Jinxia Liu, an environmental engineering professor at McGill University, suggest first responders could become part of the solution by helping reduce the amount of contaminated water draining into the ground.
"Firefighting water can be picked up using tanker trucks equipped with vacuum pumps and transported to a wastewater facility for disposal. Some chemicals can still leach into the ground, but the practice would cut down the release of any chemicals," said Liu.
Greg Saunders, the fire chief in charge of the scene that morning, said there was no attempt to contain the foam or the runoff.
In fact three days after the fire, the Environment Ministry ordered the owner of the flea market — not the local fire department — to remove any wastewater still pooled at the site, and arrange for drinking water to be supplied to nearby residents.
'We just want our water back'
The Reads have replaced all their plumbing and appliances, and continue to drink bottled water.
They've sought advice from a hydrologist and a chemist, and plan to install a new water filtration system once they're using their well water again.
It's not clear when that will happen.
According to Miriam Diamond, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Toronto, while many chemicals will break down and disperse naturally, "the perfluorinated alkyl compounds (PFAS) used in firefighting foam are, to the best of our knowledge, almost infinitely persistent and are very mobile."
That concerns Cory Read.
"We don't want to go anywhere. We just want our water back, that's all."