Canadian Tap Water Quality Found Wanting

OTTAWA, Ontario, Canada, January 19, 2001 (ENS) - A survey into how Canada protects, treats and tests water supplies has found that regulations in some jurisidictions are as bad or worse than those in Ontario prior to an E. coli outbreak which killed seven people.

"In the absence of a comprehensive, cross country approach to protecting drinking water, more tragedies almost certainly await us," says Waterproof, Sierra Legal's national report card released Thursday.


Seven people died and 2,000 people fell ill after E. coli found its way into the water system of Walkerton, a town of 5,000 people in southwest Ontario. (Photo courtesy Town of Walkerton)
The report says Canada lags far behind the United States in protecting drinking water. It claims Canada’s aging water and wastewater infrastructure needs renewal and upgrading.

Federal infrastructure funding falls short of what cash strapped local municipalities need to upgrade, it says, which has forced some to turn to the private sector to own and operate water systems. This has further muddied the waters of accountability, it continues.

"After a careful coast to coast review including interviews with health officials in every province and territory, it's clear our present regulations are as leaky as a sieve," said Sierra Legal's executive director, Karen Wristen.

"Last spring's horrific events in Walkerton should be a wakeup call not just to Ontario but to the federal government and every province and territory in the country."

A deadly strain of E. coli killed seven people and made 2,000 others violently ill last May in the southwest Ontario town of Walkerton.

Escherichia coli bacteria is commonly found in the intestines of humans and animals and is usually benign. Some strains, such as the often lethal 0157:H7 variety that hit Walkerton, can cause dangerous, or life threatening infections. An inquiry into the Walkerton tragedy was launched last fall and continues.

E. coli is just one of many contaminants that can be transmitted through the water supply without proper protection.

In a list it stresses is by no means exhaustive, Sierra Legal details several other threats that have surfaced across Canada.

The potentially lethal single cell parasite cryptosporidium has appeared in water supplies in Collingwood and Kitchener, Ontario, as well as the British Columbia communities of Cranbrook and Kelowna.

Faecal coliforms, including E. coli, have been detected in Moncton, New Brunswick’s drinking water.

Cancer causing trihalomethanes (THMs) have been found in Newfoundland waters. And in several Ontario communities, traces of trichloroethylene - the waterborne chemical whose debilitating health effects are chronicled in the non-fiction book and movie, A Civil Action - have also appeared.

Based on recent changes made by Ontario to its regulatory regime, the province earns a B grade in Waterproof's report card, but would have got a D prior to events in Walkerton.

Also earning a D are British Columbia and Newfoundland. The Yukon received a D minus, and Prince Edward Island received a failing grade of F. Only Alberta and Quebec received modest B grades, with Nova Scotia awarded B minus.


Ontario Premier Mike Harris, with provincial Environment Minister Dan Newman, at last August's announcement of Operation Clean Water, the government's response to the worst outbreak of E. coli poisoning in Canadian history. (Photo courtesy Government of Ontario)
Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick received C or C minus.

Sierra Legal arrived at the grades by contacting government personnel in each province and territory. Each was asked to provide information on a range of issues.

These issues included asking whether their governments require testing before a water source is approved. They were asked whether their government had the legal means to protect the lands around water supplies from potentially harmful human activities.

Methods of water treatment and public reporting requirements were investigated and each province or territory was asked if it had a single agency dedicated to protecting all aspects of drinking water quality.

In answer to the last question, not one Canadian province or territory has appointed a single agency with sole responsibility for all aspects of drinking water quality.

"This is about more than which province passed and which province failed," said Judy Darcy, national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

CUPE has been calling for action to strengthen and improve Canada's public water systems since 1997. It is Canada's largest union, representing 485,000 women and men working in health care, emergency services, education, municipalities, social services, libraries, utilities, transportation, airlines and water workers.

Darcy called for strong federal action, warning the Liberal government of Jean Chretien not to pass the buck.

"This situation cries out for federal leadership starting immediately to ensure that all Canadians can feel safe about the water that comes out of their tap," said Darcy.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities says about C$16.5 billion is needed over the next 10 years to replace or upgrade water mains, storage tanks and water treatment plants.

The 2000-2001 federal budget commits C$2.65 billion over the next six years for all types of infrastructure projects including water.

Darcy said tougher standards would be meaningless unless they are backed up with equipment and operators.

"To have truly watertight protection our public water systems also need funding to upgrade and build new systems, so that we have the best technology and environmentally sound practices. The federal infrastructure program is a downpayment - but we can't afford to wait. More money must start flowing now."

Waterproof compared how Canada's water safeguards to America's. It found that many dangerous substances prohibited under the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act are not even listed in Canada's non-binding drinking water guidelines.

The Act, administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, lists many contaminants that are not allowed, or permitted at only very low concentrations in public water supplies.

Among the compounds listed in the U.S. Act that are not included in Canadian Drinking Water Quality guidelines are asbestos, which causes intestinal problems, beryllium (intestinal lesions), thalium (linked to kidney, liver and intestinal problems) and several pesticides.


Departing vice president Al Gore presents tips to promote safe handling and grilling of meat and poultry during the summer. The same deadly E. coli strain responsible for the Walkerton tragedy can surface in hamburger patties without proper cooking. (Photo courtesy Food Safety and Inspection Service,United States Department of Agriculture )
Canadian Drinking Water Quality guidelines are prepared by Health Canada but are not binding.

The U.S. places more stringent limits on certain contaminants. For example, Canada’s limit on trichloroethylene is 10 times higher than the U.S. standard, said the report.

"In many ways, the U.S. sets the standard both for water testing and protection of water sources," said Wristen.

"American citizens can sue water providers who fail to provide them safe drinking water. Canadians cannot," she pointed out.

"To bring us up to where the U.S. is, we need a comprehensive approach to protecting drinking water from potentially lethal contaminants. That means protecting water sources, ensuring adequate water treatment, insisting on properly trained and certified water operators, strict monitoring and enforcement, and prompt publication of all water testing results."

Waterproof makes the following recommendations:

To view the report, visit: