Ar­senic wor­ries

Concerns iden­ti­fied re­lated to ar­senic lev­els in wells.

The Pilot - - Front Page - BY PA­TRICK MUR­PHY Pa­trick.Mur­phy@ad­ver­tis­ernl.ca

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 cancer-caus­ing agent.

He­witt was re­cently the sub­ject of a fea­ture ar­ti­cle in Cana­dian Fam­ily Physi­cian (CFP) mag­a­zine, a peer-re­viewed med­i­cal jour­nal and the of­fi­cial pub- li­ca­tion 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 prop- er­ties 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.

TELE­GRAM FILE PHOTO

Res­i­dents in some com­mu­ni­ties in the New World Is­land area are fac­ing a silent killer – ar­senic.

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