Poisoning the well
People in Moreton’s Harbour drank from their wells for decades without fear. One doctor’s chilling discovery changed that.
Debby Rideout had her whole future ahead of her.
In August 1987, Rideout had just gotten married, and was already hatching plans to open her own hair salon. Just two days after her wedding, which crammed a hundred revellers into a nearby Lions Club hall, she moved from her hometown of Twillingate to picturesque Moreton’s Harbour, into a cozy wood-panelled home she built from the ground up with her husband, Chris.
Over the next few years, Chris, a lobster harvester, kept hauling in catch after catch. Meanwhile, Rideout’s business thrived. The couple had one baby — a boy named Justin — then another son, Nicholas.
Everything was falling into place.
With hard work inflating their bank account, the Rideouts decided to splurge on an artesian well, hoping to avoid the usual summertime odour of algae-infused water from their surface pump. The company they hired drilled down over 200 feet before finding a source.
“The water was crystal clear — perfect. No smell,” she recalls. It came out of the taps so pure, it looked almost blue in the bathtub.
For over 15 years, the family of four drank directly from the tap, never worried about the quality of what they consumed.
Then everything changed.
Digging up danger
Moreton’s Harbour, about a half-hour drive from Twillingate on New World Island, could only be described as “sleepy” — its major claim to fame, a cameo in the ubiquitous folk song I’se the B’y.
A few dozen people live in saltbox homes dotting the inlet, lobster traps piled high on docks. Like most outports, “everybody knows everyone,” as Rideout puts it. There’s little distinction between her neighbour’s kids and her own.
By some accounts, Moreton’s Harbour lay mostly uninhabited until halfway through the last century. But its natural bounty didn’t go unnoticed. In 1896, mineral prospector John R. Stewart discovered an antimony deposit just outside where people eventually settled; nearby lay arsenic, embedded in rocks deep underground. He hired four men to dig a shaft.
Stewart’s Mine produced 127 tonnes of arsenic ore over the next year, shipping it to a buyer in Nova Scotia. But Stewart’s company was never paid, and the mine closed down shortly after.
People started dribbling into the area over the ensuing decades, building homes and settling down. Nobody remembered the mineral wealth that lay below — that is, until Dr. Daniel Hewitt came to town.
In 2004, Hewitt, a general practitioner, took over the family practice at New World Island Clinic. At first, he didn’t notice higher rates of illness compared to other communities he’d worked in.
But his patients did. As they arrived for checkups, Hewitt began hearing concerns that rates of heart disease and cancer were more severe in Moreton’s Harbour than elsewhere. One of those patients even pointed to arsenic as a culprit.
Later, those abnormal signs still growing, Hewitt learned about the mine.
“It was sort of lost to history,” he said in a phone call.
But once he knew about it, suddenly all of those subtle suggestions clicked. What if, he thought, there really was something in the water?
Hewitt started knocking on doors, vials in hand, asking residents if he could collect samples of the water running from their wells to their taps. A couple came back clean from testing at a Memorial University lab. Others had double, triple the levels of arsenic deemed acceptable for human consumption by medical authorities in Canada and beyond. Some results were so high, it left him astounded. “That’s when it became real for me,” he said.
The day he saw those results, about six years ago, Hewitt called his clinic from Citadel Hill in Halifax, where he was on vacation, and ordered a phone blitz — a call to every house in Moreton’s Harbour. “We had to tell them as quickly as possible,” he said.
When Debby Rideout heard about Hewitt’s testing spree, her blood ran cold.
“I said, ‘There’s something wrong,’” she said, recalling her deep fatigue that winter, how vaguely ill she’d been. “I’m not saying it was the water. But I told my husband, ‘I got a feeling.’”
She sent her own samples out for analysis. When the company found out what it contained, she says, a technician called her right away.
Stop drinking from your well immediately, he said.
We’d been drinking that for 15 years.
“How bad is it?” she asked.
“Bad,” the technician said.
Rideout’s groundwater ended up containing over 80 times the acceptable limit of arsenic for human consumption.
“865 parts per billion,” she said quietly. “Nobody can actually tell me what that did to my sons or to us. No documentation.… [Nobody] has ever done studies on what this level of arsenic does to a family.
“We’d been drinking that for 15 years.”
A deadly metal
The links between illness and arsenic consumption are indisputable. “Nobody’s going to tell you they aren’t bedfellows,” as Hewitt puts it.
But, as with any toxic exposure, falling ill is never certain.
Numerous studies tie long-term exposure of the metal to heart disease. Global health authorities class it as a group-A carcinogen. It’s the culprit in history’s largest, and ongoing, mass poisoning: natural arsenic deposits contaminating well water in Bangladesh, according to the World Health Organization, kill as many as 43,000 people every year.
Arsenic occurs naturally in bedrock. In Newfoundland, government-conducted geological surveys dating back decades show a diagonal rash of deposits from the southwestern coast of the island to its northeastern tip.
Even without any disturbance from wayward miners, arsenic can leach into aquifers deep underground — water tables that people in rural areas might unknowingly drill into and drink from. How it gets into the water, usually, is nobody’s fault.
Short-term exposure can lead to stomach pain, vomiting and numbness of the extremities. Long-term exposure sometimes thickens the skin and covers it in spots; cancers may form in the lungs and bladder.
Although widely mined and used as a semiconductor in batteries and electronics, arsenic is considered one of Earth’s most toxic metals. The established risks of drinking it meant the results of Hewitt’s investigation tentatively answered the community’s nagging concerns about why people seemed to be falling ill.
“Everybody was talking about it,” Rideout recalled. There were funerals. Diagnoses. “For a while it was pretty scary and nobody could pinpoint why.”
Hewitt, looking back, remembers seeing skin changes — a thickening or splotchy darkening of the hands and feet — commensurate with arsenic exposure in some of his patients. When the patients went away, and drank from other sources, their condition improved. “It’s not ironclad medical proof,” he said. “But it’s suspicious.”
Atanu Sarkar, an associate professor of environmental health at Memorial University, had already spent years looking at well-water quality elsewhere in the province. When he heard about Hewitt’s discovery, he zeroed in.
In a 2020 study, Sarkar combed through localized health data. When he compared Moreton’s Harbour with similar control communities, the results confirmed local rumour: in the households circling that small inlet, rates of cancer diagnoses were 25 per cent higher than in communities with untainted water. Arsenic, he concluded, was the likely cause.
For Rideout’s neighbours, the paper only supported what they’d already suspected.
In that tiny, homely outport, cancer, it seemed, had clustered.
In the ether
The day Rideout heard the news, she devised a system.
Drinking water in the Rideout residence now comes from the grocery store, transported home in giant blue jugs kept by the front door; several times a day, she pours that water into glass pitchers placed beside sinks throughout the house.
The family reaches for those pitchers to make tea, cook or brush their teeth, rendering their taps useful only for washing hair or clothes. Rideout says they thought about buying a special filter, but at that point, she’d never trust it. “How would I know that my water was going to be safe?” she asked.
Nobody in her household has fallen ill — yet. But Rideout says she’d blame herself if they ever did, even knowing she couldn’t have prepared for a danger she had no idea existed.
An official fact sheet about arsenic graces the Department of Environment and Climate Change website. But that message never reached Rideout — or anybody else she knows in Moreton’s Harbour.
Although the province has been warning the public about arsenic-laden groundwater for years, Sarkar’s studies show room for better messaging. From his surveys, Rideout isn’t alone: most well owners across the island haven’t the faintest idea what they could be drinking beyond more commonly-known dangers like E. coli.
Hewitt, too, says the warning system could be less passive. “People just don’t go to the Department of Environment and look at their website,” he said.
Multiple drilling companies contacted by CBC News said they weren’t legally required to test for arsenic, lead or other harmful minerals for their clients. The Environment Department confirmed that the onus of water testing lies with the well owner, but then pointed to legislation suggesting drilling companies should take on that testing; the department also refused to answer a question about its public awareness practices, lending more confusion to the matter of who’s responsible for making sure naturally-occurring carcinogens stay out of private wells.
In the end, the red alert in Moreton’s Harbour took the form not of posters or pamphlets, but of a hunch from locals themselves: a kind of community knowledge floating in the ether. That, in itself, can be a useful public health tool.
A 2015 study looking into a possible cancer cluster in the Argentia region didn’t find higher rates of illness, but did point to village wisdom as a vital means of sniffing out environmental toxins.
“The perception of a cluster in a community may be as important as, or more important than, an actual cluster,” the authors note.
Watch the second instalment of Toxic Towns:
Moreton’s Harbour isn’t the first instance of contaminated well water in Newfoundland and Labrador. Arsenic toxicity also befell the community of Chapel’s Cove in 2002.
That year, officials came under fire for failing to notify residents about high arsenic levels in the outport’s water source. Kids like Chantille Crowley, whose mother told CBC News at the time that she’d been complaining of stomach pain, offered up hair samples to see if they’d been poisoned. The tests came back positive.
Improvement in public health messaging, despite the ordeal, has been less than swift.
Rideout sees an easy solution. She recalls her contractor telling her to test the well for bacteria. The company didn’t mention the possibility of poisoning by minerals — something Rideout thinks should be mandatory.
“If at that time somebody had said, ‘Send your water,’” she said, “I would have sent it wherever.”
Even if awareness grows now, however, the damage in Moreton’s Harbour has already been done.
“People are getting sick,” said Perry Small, who heads the Bridgeport Kinsmen’s Club, a cadre of 17 volunteers who spearhead community projects.
“We’ve all been touched by the fact that cancer is at a high rate in this area. We’ve all dealt with someone personally,” Small said. “And now realizing that maybe our drinking water could be affecting the ones that we love, then it makes it a very big issue.”
After Hewitt’s results came back, the community held meetings, trying to figure out how to get clean water to everyone in town. Small was there, looking for ways to help.
The club has since dedicated a portion of their headquarters and countless hours of their time to paperwork, trying to barrel through the red tape needed to acquire provincial funds for a community filtration system. If they succeed, it would supply the area with a clean local source from which jugs could be filled.
“Here in Canada we often take for granted the fact that clean drinking water is accessible to us at all times,” Small said.
“That’s obviously not the case.”
Rideout’s sons, now in their 20s, make playful jabs at their mother, who always told them to drink water instead of pop. “You were poisoning us this whole time!” they say, laughing.
Their humour is infectious: Rideout cracks a smile when she talks about it. But it doesn’t erase the lurking worry that years of arsenic exposure will one day catch up to one of them.
“It’s not fair. I did everything as a parent to keep them safe, but I failed at one thing. And that was the water,” she said tearfully. “And I had no idea.”
Rideout tries not to think about it now. Her new routine — buying clean water, lugging it home, and filling up her pitchers — has calcified. It’s now a reflex.
But one thing will always stay with her.
“No matter where I go in my life, I won’t trust the water,” she said. “I’ll question it from here on in.”