Smiths Falls, Ont., residents fearful after water contaminated by fire

Residents of 10 homes near a Smiths Falls, Ont., flea market that burned down Nov. 6 have been warned not to shower or even flush their toilets after potentially dangerous chemicals were discovered in their water.

Residents near burned-out flea market warned not to shower, flush toilets

Chelsea Metcalfe takes a sip of water at her parents' home in Carp, where she's moved her family because of contaminated water at their own home in Smiths Falls, Ont. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

For two weeks now, Chelsea Metcalfe, her husband and their two sons have been living with her parents near Carp.

It's not by choice: the family is too scared to return to their own home just outside Smiths Falls, Ont., because their water is dangerously contaminated following a fire at a nearby flea market.

"We are absolutely terrified," Metcalfe said.

Just after 5 a.m. on Nov. 6, firefighters were called to Rideau Valley Marketplace on Highway 43. Video shot that morning shows a roaring blaze that destroyed the liquidation outlet.

When the flames were finally doused, nearby residents began noticing foam in their water and a chemical smell. 

Ministry tested water samples

The province's Environment Ministry took water samples for testing, and the results showed "contaminants associated with firewater and firefighting foam were present."

Residue from items that burned when the flea market was destroyed added to the contamination, the ministry said.
Fire destroyed the Rideau Valley Marketplace in Smiths Falls, Ont., on Nov. 6, 2016.

According to the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit, the dangerous elements in the water include perflouroalkylated substances, or PFAS, volatile organic compounds, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and metals.

Three days after the fire the ministry ordered the owner of the flea market to remove any pooled water at the site and provide bottled drinking water to 10 surrounding households.

Paula Stewart, the medical officer of health for the district, sent a written notice directing those residents "to not consume their well water and not to use their well water in ways that it may be aerosolized and inhaled." 

For residents, that meant no showers or even flushing toilets, which could cause water droplets and vapour to become airborne.

Boiling is not a solution and will likely make the water even more dangerous, according to Stewart.

Nearly passed out

Chelsea Metcalfe said it was so bad she nearly passed out in her home before deciding to move her family out.

Even 15 minutes in our house and we are dizzy, nauseous, sore throats, headaches. It's not pleasant.- Chelsea Metcalfe

"We [were] all getting incredibly sick at home, even 15 minutes in our house and we are dizzy, nauseous, sore throats, headaches. It's not pleasant."

Terry Kilburn and his wife are still living in their home, but they're keeping their water turned off. 

"[Health authorities] told us not even to breath [water vapour], that it has a carcinogen in it and it could harmful for breathing, even on your skin it could cause blisters," Kilburn said.

Some of the residents who have remained in their homes complain they're not getting enough bottled water.

Elyse Smith and her husband decided to spend $1,500 on a large outdoor water tank. On Tuesday a truck arrived to fill it up.
Water fills an outdoor storage tank purchased by a resident of one of the homes affected by contamination after a fire at a nearby flea market.

Smith is hoping to recover the cost of the tank and the water from the flea market owner's insurance company.

"It's really hard, especially with a little girl who doesn't completely understand what is going on, being sick," Smith said. "We have to go to the community centre to shower. It's taking a lot of time out of our days and it is expensive."

Advisory to remain in place until further notice

"Until we are satisfied the water is safe the drinking water advisory will remain in place," said Teresa Clow, senior public health inspector with the district health unit. "It's not a one- or two-day thing. It's longer-term."

The health unit is awaiting the results from further tests, Clow said.

Tom Pirie, the owner of the flea market, could not be reached for comment.

About 20 residents met with the medical officer of health for the district Wednesday night in Perth, Ont. Many said they were concerned about not getting enough bottled water.

Drummond North Elmsley Reeve Aubrey Churchill is hoping more action will be taken before people start their holiday vacations around Dec. 20. (Julie ireton/CBC)

'A very difficult situation'

Township Reeve Aubrey Churchill told residents each household is currently getting five cases of bottled water per week.

"I've never heard anything so ridiculous in my life. ... They're expected to wash the dishes, wash themselves," he said, adding that he spoke to Lanark–Frontenac–Lennox and Addington MPP Randy Hillier about it.

And with the holidays on the horizon, Churchill said he's hoping action will be taken before Dec. 20 when people start to leave work for vacation.

"Christmas is coming on. [We have] a lot of young families, and this is a very difficult situation they're in," he said.