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What’s in your water?

Researcher says water quality and health "major" issues in N.L.

Research  |  Environment

Part of a special series showcasing faculty, staff and students’ commitment to placing the environment at the forefront of  research, public engagement and teaching and learning activities at Memorial.


By Michelle Osmond

Dr. Atanu Sarkar predicts there will be more water crises such as the one in Flint, Mich., in 2014 if things don’t change.

An associate professor in environmental and occupational health in the Division of Community Health and Humanities, Faculty of Medicine, Dr. Sarkar has spent the last 20 years educating the public about the province’s water supply and how citizens can ensure that what they’re drinking is safe.

Rural wells

Dr. Sarkar believes water quality is a major issue in Newfoundland and Labrador, particularly the quality of water in private wells. Public water sources are regularly tested by the provincial government; private wells, which account for about a quarter of the province’s drinking water, are not.

The researcher has led a number of projects and worked with rural communities in Western Newfoundland and Bonavista Bay, as well as Black Tickle, Labrador. He also led an investigation of arsenic contamination of groundwater sources in New World Island, Twillingate, and the surrounding area.

In New World Island, family physician Dr. Daniel Hewitt contacted Dr. Sarkar in 2015 because of arsenic issues in water there.

“The issues with well water here have been here for hundreds of years,” said Hewitt. “It was known to some residents, but not known to people like me, the family doctor. Dr. Sarkar was great. He actually came out here to visit and talked to about 200 people. Since then, I’ve been pushing the issue and Dr. Sarkar has been supportive every step of the way.”

Dr. Atanu Sarkar in Black Tickle, Labrador.
Dr. Atanu Sarkar in Black Tickle, Labrador.
Photo: Submitted

Dr. Sarkar also notes that water can be contaminated by agricultural activities and leaching of oils and absorption of exhaust from vehicles. He says that, ideally, water sources should be away from traffic.

“But, the irony is two water sources of St. John’s, Windsor Lake and Bay Bulls Big Pond, are very close to highways with heavy traffic. Indeed, the city authority is expected to filter all possible contaminants. However, threat is always there.”

E. coli ‘major’ threat

According to Dr. Sarkar, impurities are natural. Underground minerals such as arsenic, fluoride, lead, uranium and others come mostly from dug or artesian wells, while pond water is mostly contaminated by bacteria or viruses coming from animal or human feces.

However, if pond water is not properly treated and organic materials removed prior to chlorination, the remaining organic material can be converted to disinfection byproducts that are possible human carcinogens.

And due to poor maintenance facilities and failure of disinfection system, E. coli is a major threat to several public water supplies in Newfoundland and Labrador, he says. Hence the reason several communities have been under boil water advisories for years — some since 1997. In fact, there are more than 200 boil water advisories listed on the Government of Newfoundland website for 2015-16.

“E. coli can cause water-borne infections, such as what happened in Walkerton, Ont., in 2000.” — Dr. Atanu Sarkar

Dr. Sarkar says all impurities have some adverse health effects.

“E. coli can cause water-borne infections, such as what happened in Walkerton, Ont., in 2000. Arsenic is a potential carcinogen and can affect all body organs. Newfoundland and Labrador has a history of high arsenic levels in some communities.

“Some communities have high fluoride, uranium, and lead coming from old lead pipes that can severely affect brain function,” he continued. “Uranium can affect kidney function. Fluoride affects teeth and bone mineralization. Many people regularly drink water directly from springs and ponds. There is no scope for checking their quality.”

Accredited testing the only answer

For private wells, regular testing by the well owners to any accredited lab at least once a year is the only way to ensure quality, says Dr. Sarkar. However, he says testing costs prevent many well owners from doing so and the fact that there’s no accredited lab in Newfoundland and Labrador is an obstacle. Samples must be sent to Halifax, Toronto or Ottawa for testing.

His advice: “The communities having no public water supply can organize water sample collection and shipment of the samples to the lab. This will motivate the households to test and reduce the cost of shipping.”

Dr. Atanu Sarkar tests the quality of water under the ice in Black Tickle, Labrador.
Dr. Atanu Sarkar tests the quality of water under the ice in Black Tickle, Labrador.
Photo: Submitted

Dr. Sarkar also believes that health authorities, government and communities can work together to disseminate information.

He also says education around water quality is a factor, proper fencing should be erected to prevent animals accessing ponds used for drinking water and no industrial activities, including tree cutting, should be allowed near water supplies.

For private wells, Dr. Sarkar says well caps should be properly installed with no toilet or oil tanks nearby, and the concrete well casings should be intact.

Accredited lab necessary

Dr. Sarkar also believes Newfoundland and Labrador should have an accredited testing lab that is affordable and accessible to the public.

“One study of private wells in New World Island revealed the worst arsenic contaminated area in the province,” he said. “In some private wells, arsenic levels were 80-100 times more than guideline values. This accidental discovery further vindicated my opinion on having a lab facility in the province.”

Dr. Sarkar’s work and research has resulted in some changes. In 2015 CBC News revealed that St. John’s was the worst city in Canada with regards to water quality testing — at the time, the city only tested 15 contaminants out of 75 possibilities. Dr. Sarkar was consulted as an expert for the investigation.

“I strongly recommended testing all 75. Although the deputy city manager defended the old policy, interestingly, just two days later, the city’s deputy mayor supported my view and changed the policy immediately.”

Deteriorating infrastructure

The province’s fiscal situation is also to blame, according to Dr. Sarkar. He says many municipalities have aging water supply systems that need repair and upgrading. He also says there is a lack of human resources to run water treatment facilities.

“If the trend continues, many small municipalities will eventually close their public water supply and turn to individual private wells or other sources.” — Dr. Atanu Sarkar

“Aging populations, lack of young people interested in staying in the communities, closure of fish processing industries, in addition to low oil revenues, adversely affect the maintenance of the infrastructure for water supplies, particularly in remote and rural areas,” he says.

“I suspect, if the trend continues, many small municipalities will eventually close their public water supply and turn to individual private wells or other sources unless the provincial government invests a huge amount of money in water infrastructure.”

But, he adds, this problem is not unique to Newfoundland and Labrador. Small rural communities in other Canadian provinces and in the U.S. face similar challenges.

“The drinking water disaster due to mass lead poisoning in Flint, Mich., was a result of the looming financial crisis of the town and cost adjustment, and got global attention. There will be more Flints, if adequate and timely measures are not taken.”


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