NRC employees told to drink bottled water 2 years before neighbours warned
National Research Council employees at the fire-safety testing facility in Mississippi Mills were told to start drinking bottled water in January 2014, almost two years before neighbours were told about ground water contaminated with toxic chemicals.
According to documents released under the Access to Information Act, workers were told in an email from the facility manager dated Jan. 14, 2014 that "acceptable" levels of PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals) were found in in the drinking water. But "until a decision is made on the health impact to staff at U- 96," employees were, we instructed "NOT TO DRINK WATER AT U- 96."
Later that month, the NRC was billed $360.35 for a water cooler system.
But it wasn't until December 2015 that residents living near the facility were told that their water had been contaminated with chemicals often found in firefighting foams.
PFCs are also known as perfluoroalkylated substances, or PFAS. They were discovered in the groundwater from drill sites close to the facility's border during an environmental assessment in 2013.
NRC delivering water to some neighbours
Following that initial assessment, the NRC expanded its study area to figure out which way the ground water flowed and drilled down to the depth of residents' wells to test the water and soil. Those tests also found traces of PFAS. And that's when the NRC told neighbours about the problem.
"A lot of people don't understand why it took a lot of time. And what I've been explaining is that it is a scientific process," said NRC spokesman Charles Drouin. "When you're trying to collect water samples, or soil samples… It's not an analysis that is done overnight."
Since warning neighbours about the contamination, the NRC has been delivering bottled water to some homes and is paying for charcoal water filtration systems in others. It has also offered to test the well water of nearby homeowners.
"We can certainly understand the frustration of residents," said Drouin. "We've been working collaboratively with the municipality of Mississippi Mills, and we did respond to some of their questions and so we're very much engaged at this point in trying to reassure residents that we're doing everything to ensure their safety and health."
Little known about risk of toxins
Scientific information is limited on PFAS, according to Health Canada, but in studies done on animals, "high levels of PFAS have been linked with negative health effects ... including liver damage and impacts on neurological development," the agency's fact sheet says.
In humans, short-term exposure to PFAS at levels slightly above the safety threshold isn't expected to have health effects, according to Health Canada, but the agency does not define what constitutes short- or long-term exposure.
Residents, who have no clear answers on how long they've been exposed to these chemicals or whether they are still exposed to them, have called for the NRC testing site to be shut down.
Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan told CBC News earlier this year that firefighting foams containing PFAS have not been used at the site since 2015.