Thunder Bay

Grassy Narrows toxic tap water not fixed by boiling, expert says

A biology professor who specializes in water quality and human health says the chemicals found in drinking water at a northern Ontario First Nation are "disturbing."

No safe level for human consumption of chemicals found in First Nations' tap water

A reaction between natural occurring chemicals in the surface water at Grassy Narrows and the chemicals used in the water treatment plant is creating toxic results in the tap water. (Jody Porter/CBC)

A biology professor who specializes in water quality and human health says the chemicals found in drinking water at a northern Ontario First Nation are "disturbing."

Grassy Narrows (Asubpeeschoseewagong) First Nation, located about 100 kilometres north of Kenora, Ont., declared a state of emergency last week amid growing concerns about the disinfectant by-products found in the community's tap water.

The concerns about trichloralmethanes, haloacetic acids and hexachlorocyclopentadiene, (collectively known as disinfectant by-products) are well-placed, according to Eva Pip, a biology professor at the University of Winnipeg.

"The effects of these are actually quite disturbing because in some instances these chemicals can be hormone disrupters, they can damage the liver and kidneys, they can have neurological effects and also they can have reproductive effects, for example, effects on the fetus or fertility issues," Pip said. 

There's also evidence that long-term exposure to the chemicals causes cancer, she said.

'No difference if you boil it'

Grassy Narrows has had a boil water advisory in place for more than a year, but resorted to the state of emergency when it couldn't get answers about whether boiling the water would remove the harmful chemicals. Pip said it will not.

"Unfortunately boiling does not reduce these chemicals," she said. "There will be basically no difference if you boil it."

There is no safe level for human consumption of the chemicals, although there are indications that women experience more health effects than men, she said.

The First Nation now fears its residents have been ingesting the toxic tap water since 1993 when a water treatment plant with a "deficient design" was built in the community. Health Canada tests in 1999 revealed disinfectant by-products in the drinking water at the daycare in Grassy Narrows.

'Asleep at the wheel'

Grassy Narrows Chief Roger Fobister says government has been "asleep at the wheel" when it comes to providing safe drinking water for people in his community.
"The government of Canada, and our MP Greg Rickford, have been asleep at the wheel when it comes to providing safe drinking water to our community," said Chief Roger Fobister. 

NDP, Liberal and Green Party candidates in the federal election said they'd do a better job of ensuring safe drinking water in First Nations. Fobister is calling on each of them to declare a date by which their party would fix the tap water at Grassy Narrows.

The harmful chemicals in the drinking water are created when natural occurring organic chemicals in surface water are exposed to chlorination in the water treatment process, creating a reaction between the two, Pip said.

The water treatment plant at Grassy Narrows is not designed to pre-treat surface water, which could eliminate that chemical reaction. Officials said the plant also lacks capacity to automatically monitor water quality.

CBC News asked Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada on August 27 how the department is responding to the state of emergency at Grassy Narrows. A spokesperson said she is still working on providing an answer.