Technical team hits ground in Attawapiskat to assess failing water systems

A crew of health officials and technical specialists will be trying to figure out what happened with the First Nation’s water systems, after high levels of dangerous chemicals prompted the Chief and Council to call a state of emergency July 7.

Indigenous Services Canada says collaboration, communication keys to easing First Nation's concerns

In this picture tweeted by @BourgouinGuy, MPP Sol Mamakwa draws from a drinking water station Attawapiskat. (@BourgouinGuy)

The federal government says a team of experts is on the ground in Attawapiskat.

A crew of health officials and technical specialists will be trying to figure out what happened with the First Nation's water systems, after high levels of dangerous chemicals prompted the chief and council to call a state of emergency July 7.

They're now looking at all options for a potential fix, even a new water source for the community of 2,000.

Chad Westmacott, director general of the community infrastructure branch with Indigenous Services Canada, addressed media as part of a technical briefing Tuesday morning. 

Westmacott said that there are a "number of options" to get trihalomethanes (THM levels) down to acceptable rates.

"Flushing the water system, taking a look at a thorough cleaning of the full system including the reservoir," he said. 

"Another potential is to take a look at the filter media that is used in the water treatment facility and determine whether or not it needs replacing."

Westmacott said that the higher levels of THMs—  which Health Canada says can lead to rashes, sores, and bladder cancer over time—  could have been caused by organic compounds treated with chlorine. 

Information, best practices part of town hall meeting

Shaun Mackie, regional manager for Environmental Public Health Services with Indigenous Services Canada, was part of a group who visited Attawapiskat with Ontario Health's Dr. Ray Copes after the emergency was initially called.

Mackie said he took part in a town hall meeting during his visit July 17 to help assuage any concerns the community may have about the water.

"We provided information about disinfection byproducts, [and] we provided kind of some best practices and practical methods how people can limit their exposure to these chemicals."

"The practical advice that we've provided to the to to limit your exposure," Mackie said. "You can do things like reducing the amount of time that you spend in showers or baths, to try to ventilate the washroom as much as possible when you're showering or bathing, using a bathroom fan if you have one. But if you don't you can open a window or the door to try to get the steam out of there."

"And the other thing that we want to communicate and we have communicated to the community is that you can still use the water for things like brushing your teeth, washing fruits and vegetables, and using it for your normal domestic uses."

What causes THM levels to spike?

"In general disinfection byproducts...are formed when you add chlorinated water with organic material," Mackie said. 

Mackie added that the "vast majority" of water systems in Canada have some level of disinfection byproducts present, the levels changing with seasons as the amount of vegetation or decaying organic matter loads up in the system.

Two most common disinfection byproducts are trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. 

"When we look at things like disinfection byproducts we first have to make sure that the water is not compromised with respect to chlorination," Mackie said. "So chlorine is used for disinfection, and we have to ensure that disinfection is always as effective as possible. It should never ever ever be compromised."

The absence of chlorine poses "a very acute risk," he added.