Health fears persist for residents near razed flea market

Residents near Smiths Falls continue to deal with the effects of a major fire at a nearby flea market after their well water became dangerously contaminated.

Wells of 11 homes near Smiths Falls contaminated with chemicals following fire Nov. 6

Elyse Smith, who is seven months pregnant, has been told she must undergo an induced birth in January. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

Elyse Smith and Cory Read are looking forward to the birth of a son, but they're also terribly worried.

Smith, 27, fainted three times recently at the couple's home near Smiths Falls, Ont. 

"I just started becoming very dizzy and then I fell down the stairs and didn't remember what happened which brought us to the hospital," said Smith.

I just started becoming very dizzy and then I fell down the stairs.- Elyse Smith

Doctors have now told her the birth will have to be induced. The baby was initially due in the middle of February, but will instead be delivered a month earlier.

"It absolutely is terrifying," said Read, 36. "To know that if my fiancée carries the child to full term, in essence, I could lose her. She could bleed out, she could have a heart attack, a stroke."

Flea market fire led to contamination

On Nov. 6 a popular flea market across Highway 43 from the couple's home burned to the ground. Firefighters doused the flames for hours with water and fire-retardant foam.

Soon after, residents in 11 homes surrounding the gutted business began noticing foam and a chemical odour in their water.
Fire destroyed Rideau Valley Marketplace, a popular flea market, on Nov. 6. (CBC)

Tests showed their wells were contaminated with dozens of toxic chemicals, some of them linked to serious health problems such as cancer.

Local health authorities quickly advised residents not to drink the water, but not before Smith had already consumed a few glasses.

Water warning expanded

Ten days after the fire, on Nov. 16, the health unit expanded its warning, telling residents the water was unsafe even for bathing, washing dishes or doing laundry. Even flushing toilets was deemed dangerous due to the risk of inhaling the resulting water vapour.

Doctors haven't confirmed Smith's fainting spells are related to the water contamination, and have told her they could be caused by stress.
The wells of 11 homes were found to be contaminated following the fire. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

Chelsea Metcalfe, another resident living near the flea market, said she's had similar health problems.  

"Even 15 minutes in our house and we are dizzy, nauseous, sore throats, headaches. It's not pleasant," Metcalfe told CBC last month.

Metcalfe grew so concerned she moved her family to her parents' home about an hour's drive away.

Market owner providing water

Read and Smith have stayed in their house even though the water from their well remains unsafe for practically any use.

The black sludge that came out of the lines when they purged our house was just something else.- Cory Read

Their plumbing system is now connected to a large water tank in their backyard. This week, after testing the water to ensure the home's pipes had been sufficiently flushed out, the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit gave the couple and other residents the green light to use tank water for bathing, laundry, flushing of toilets and cleaning.
Cory Read fears for the health of his fiancée and unborn son. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

The owner of the Rideau Valley Marketplace is providing residents with both the bulk water in their backyards and with bottled drinking water, part of an agreement with Ontario's Ministry of the Environment.

"The black sludge that came out of the lines when they purged our house was just something else," said Read. "I mean, every filter in the house needed to be replaced. And there is the potential that all the plumbing in the house will need to be redone."

Read said the indoor water heater also had to be replaced because it was full of the contaminated well water. The couple is awaiting delivery of a new dishwasher and ice water tap for their fridge.

'It's a nightmare'

Next door, David Stevens also had his pipes flushed, but the process was too much for his home's plumbing system: pipes in the ceiling above the kitchen burst, flooding the floor and wrecking counter tops.

"It's a nightmare," Stevens said. "This property was an investment. We had a five-year plan. It's obviously going to be lengthened by, I don't know."
David Stevens bought his home as an investment, but says it's now worthless because of the contamination and related damage. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

Owners of the 11 affected homes fear their property values may never recover.

"Right now it can't even be put on the market ... so as far as an estimate, it's zero right now." Stevens said.

Meanwhile the gutted buildings of the Rideau Valley Marketplace have all been removed, and an environmental company called Ground Force is busy trying to deal with contaminated groundwater.

Nearby residents will be meeting Friday evening to get an update from health authorities and representatives from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. But homeowners aren't optimistic.

"They said they don't know when things will be back to normal, if ever," said Smith.