From the deep – arsenic in the water
Levels in some wells on New World Island 1,000 times recommended limits
MORETON’S HARBOUR, NL – For years, perhaps even generations, residents of Moreton’s Harbour suspected a silent killer lived among them.
Illness and disease are this killer’s suspected weapons, and roughly four years ago, efforts to identify the cause began in earnest. Now the suspect has a name – arsenic.
“If you asked me what I knew about arsenic three or four years ago it would have been very, very little,” Dr. Dan Hewitt told the Pilot. “And I think it’s not as well understood as it should be.”
Arsenic is a Class 1 carcinogen, which places it firmly and indisputably in the same company as tobacco as a cancercausing agent.
Hewitt was recently the subject of a feature article in Canadian Family Physician (CFP) magazine, a peer-reviewed medical journal and the official publication of the College of Family Physicians of Canada. The locum practitioner from central Newfoundland has been researching arsenic levels in the New World Island region for roughly three or four years.
Spurred by residents of the community, Hewitt’s research began after gold exploration in the area; residents claim researchers with the exploration team encouraged them to have their wells tested, and not to drink the water until they did.
Armed with anecdotal evidence, they asked Hewitt to investigate.
The doctor is not alone in the search. Glennis Rideout, a licensed practical nurse who lives and works in the community, local engineer Carl Knight, and Hewitt’s predecessor Dr. John Sheldon have all played a role. Hewitt lists a litany of community members who are part of the “team.”
The findings are staggering, says Hewitt.
“I think there was roughly 50 samples sent off to New Brunswick to an accredited lab,” said Hewitt. “There was a high rate of arsenic levels – two levels were 1,000 parts per billion. The safe level is 10.”
Hewitt says while not every well was contaminated, most tested did show arsenic in the water. Surface wells are less likely to be contaminated. Artesian wells, pulling water from much deeper in the earth, are more prone to exposure says Hewitt.
Of those with positive findings, not all were deemed unsafe, but in Moreton’s Harbour alone Hewitt estimates at least 50 per cent of the wells contain unsafe drinking water.
That was four years ago, and the province has responded – even if the response has been limited, Hewitt says.
A program was created under the former government to test, and treat if necessary, wells on properties owned by Newfoundland and Labrador Housing, a Crown corporation. Those properties alone receive the benefit of the program, says Hewitt. Individual homeowners and those renting privately owned residential properties are on their own.
Testing is costly, and treatment even more so, but the cost of inaction can be much higher, Hewitt says.
Inorganic arsenic comes in two forms: Arsenic 3 and Arsenic 5. Both require different methods of removal. The doctor believes more can and should be done.
“I wouldn’t say the (province) hasn’t done some good work,” said Hewitt. “But still there’s the feeling it’s the well owners’ responsibility and the information is out there and it’s up to the well owner to avail of it.”
Hewitt says as a physician, he looks back and knows he has had patients affected by the issue. The information may be anecdotal, he says, but it’s telling in hindsight. The cost is hard to measure. “It’s hard to quantify how much (illness) it is really causing, I can’t say for sure,” said Hewitt. “But it’s out there, and the proof that it is a bad thing is indisputable.”
The issue is not isolated to New World Island. Hewitt says there is a swath across the central region that places it in “very, very high risk.” The entire island could perhaps benefit from testing of its water supply, suggests Hewitt.
“Everywhere on the island I would say there is potential,” said Hewitt. “The west coast geologically has less chance, but not no chance, and Labrador – so far I don’t think there have been any positive tests, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist there.”
The Pilot has reached out to Service NL for information relating to arsenic testing requirements in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Pilot has also requested information on any available testing and treatment programs offered to residents by the province. The Pilot will provide updates as more information becomes available.
Residents in some communities in the New World Island area are facing a silent killer – arsenic.