TOTTENHAM, ONT.—The anger inside the jam-packed community centre was beginning to spill over.
Hundreds of residents from this community an hour northwest of Toronto gathered in a gymnasium on a Tuesday night in April, seeking answers from town officials about their drinking water, which often pours from the tap orange-brown, packed with iron dregs and smelling like a swimming pool.
For more than 15 years, politicians and health officials in the township of New Tecumseth have known the tap water in Tottenham, population 5,000, contained suspected carcinogens called Trihalomethanes (THMs), which studies have linked to pregnancy complications, spontaneous abortion, growth retardation, gastrointestinal disease, some cancers and damage to the heart, liver, kidneys and central nervous system.
After years of demands for a public meeting about their water, many in this audience of more than 250 would find out about THMs for the first time that night.
Questions and comments came in rapid fire.
“I have the ability to make a choice for my family to buy bottled water,” one local resident told town officials. “But if you don’t give me the information, and I don’t know, and I blindly use the water … that’s not fair.”
Megan Varga spoke up from the audience demanding a show of hands: how many of the officials, including the mayor, deputy mayor and town councillors, live in Tottenham and drink its water? None raised their hands.
A man held out a bottle filled with discoloured water from a local tap.
“This is some of our water, right here …You people up there, would you drink this?” he asked, as cheers of support erupted from the crowd.
Town mayor Rick Milne said he would, if experts deemed it safe. But in the end, none of the officials took a drink.
Milne conceded shortcomings with the water supply: “I agree, with regards to Tottenham, your water has not been the greatest…Who in this room has had cancer?”
A scattering of hands raised.
“I’ve just gone through cancer,” Milne said. “And…I worry.”
Ken Campbell, vice president and chair of R.V. Anderson Associates, a firm contracted by the town for infrastructure projects, told the crowd: “The town recognizes that there are significant challenges with Tottenham’s water supply and treatment system.”
Those challenges are two-fold: first, iron sediment collects in its groundwater source, discolouring the water, and second, the chlorine that is used as a disinfectant mixes with organic material to create THMs. Were it not for the iron in their water, residents may have never known that there was anything wrong. THMs are invisible, odourless and tasteless. Exposure can be more rapid when absorbed through the skin and worse still when inhaled.
The Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks has known about THM levels in Tottenham for years, even scolding town officials for insufficient testing and monitoring methods in correspondence as far back as January 2017.
These documents and others were obtained by reporters who worked as part of a nation-wide collaboration of more than 120 journalists and 10 media organizations, including the Toronto Star, Global News and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism.
Residents, who complained for years about their water and their suspicions of health impacts on their pets and their families, say they were repeatedly given a reassuring message: the only impact from the discoloured water was to their sense of aesthetics — how the water looks and smells.
THMs are unknown to most Canadians. Chloroform, the most studied compound in the THM family, is recognized by Health Canada as a “possible” cause of cancer, while another, bromodichloromethane (BDCM), is a “probable” cause.
Testing shows both are present in Tottenham’s water.
The federal THM guideline is 100 parts per billion, but Health Canada recommends that water suppliers keep THM levels “as low as possible.” In the United States, the limit for THMs is 80 ppb and water operators can face steep fines for exceeding the limit.
In a written statement this week in response to questions, Milne conceded Tottenham has a “challenging natural water quality” including the presence of methane, “elevated natural ammonia,” bromide and “elevated natural iron resulting in aesthetic concerns.” Further, the town’s current water system “provides limited to no ability” to reduce THMs.
At the moment, the town’s water meets THM drinking water regulations, Milne wrote.
But Tottenham’s annual average THM tests have routinely exceeded Health Canada’s guideline at least as far back as 2002 — when the THM average hit 143 ppb — town records show.
Nearly every year since, at least one sample has exceeded the standard. And for 11 years between 2005 and 2015 the town’s average annual THM levels exceeded 100 ppb.
More recent THM tests continue to routinely rise above 100 ppb even as the province “strongly recommends” the town expand testing, a ministry letter to the town in March reads.
Last year, THM readings for six of 14 tests exceeded 100 ppb, according to the town’s figures. The overall annual annual average was 90 ppb — just under the federal guideline. In April, a sample taken by reporters at the community centre that hosted the public meeting — home to an ice rink, fitness centre and gymnasium — produced a THM exceedance of 101 ppb.
Monthly reports released by the town show that between May and September, eight of the 15 tests taken at three testing points, exceeded the standard, rising as high as 159 ppb at the Tottenham water tower.
Last month, the towns announced it had introduced aeration technology — which pumps oxygen into water to reduce contaminants. Of seven test results in October, three were in exceedance, including a reading of 123 ppb.
Town meeting minutes refer to aeration as an $800,000 “short-term THM reduction strategy” that could reduce THM levels “as much as 40 per cent under ideal conditions.” The report adds that “THM formation will continue to occur over time when the water is in the distribution system.“
New Tecumseth’s proposed long-term solution is a $16.4-million extension to the Georgian Bay-fed pipeline that is currently servicing Alliston and Beeton. But it won’t arrive until 2022 at the earliest, according to officials.
Some residents are concerned that the pipeline might not deliver enough water. R.V. Anderson’s 2016 analysis concluded that even with a new pipeline, Tottenham would face a deficit of nearly 3,500 cubic metres of water a day by 2031.
In his response, Milne writes that, “during peak periods the Tottenham wells will need to run at higher outputs.”
In 2017, town council awarded a $720,000 project to a consulting firm that is “actively looking for new ground water supply.”
Much of the town remains suspicious — and concerned.
A recent survey of 455 town residents conducted by community groups Tottenham-Water and Wellington Water Watchers found that 82 per cent felt the town’s water supply is not safe and 89 per cent are dissatisfied with the level of information from the town.
Nearly half of respondents — 46 per cent — believe they or a family member may have experienced health issues from poor water quality, including hair loss (30 per cent), cancer (12 per cent), asthma (11 per cent), autoimmune disease (8 per cent) and miscarriage (7.5 per cent).
Two-thirds said their concerns were significant enough that they have considered moving from the town.
Among those is Nancy McBride, a single mother of two who has become an activist.
For the first 15 years she lived in Tottenham, she believed the town’s reassurances. Then a neighbour mentioned THMs in 2016.
“I didn’t know what it was. I Googled it and I was appalled that we had carcinogens in our water,” she said. “I realized that for 15 years I’d been consuming it. All I could think of was, I raised my babies on this and nobody gave me the opportunity to make decisions for myself or my children.”
Neither she nor her daughters have consumed or cooked with water from the taps since.
In Ontario, provincial data shows that since 2016, more than 80 communities have exceeded the provincial limit of 100 ppb, including North Bay, Innisfil, Kawartha Lakes and Timmins.
The City of Kawartha Lakes has drinking water systems serving 14,000 customers in towns such as Lindsay, Fenelon Falls and Kirkfield.
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“We have to balance our projects,” said Amber Hayter, Kawartha Lakes’ supervisor for water and wastewater operations. “It’s always kind of been a thing that we are working on.”
Wawa, a town of 3,000 between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, has been under a drinking water advisory since November 2014 after testing revealed the annual THM average was 112.9 ppb. Since then, the level has hovered around 100 ppb with annual averages dipping below the limit in 2017 and 2018.
“We’re still on an average of around 85 (ppb) and, to me, that’s too high,” said Cory Stainthope, Wawa’s director of infrastructure. “I don’t see a point to removing the advisory right now because it is still quite high…The way water works, we could easily have a high hit.”
Stephen Liss, a Ryerson University chemistry professor and expert on water microbiology, says that Newfoundland and Labrador suffers from some of “the most significant excess of federal guidelines.” Since 2005, more than 200 communities in the province have logged annual THM averages over 100 ppb. Last year alone, water in more than 100 communities exceeded the standard, some reaching as high as 700 ppb.
On average, there are approximately 120 drinking water systems with THM exceedances affecting a population of more than 100,000, confirmed provincial spokesperson Erin Shea in a written statement.
Among them: Bonavista, on the eastern coast, has shown average THM levels of 242 ppb since 2005; Burlington, at the mouth of Green Bay, averaged 316 ppb in the same time period; Burgeo, on the southwest coast, averaged 257 ppb. Among the highest numbers were recorded in the east coast town of Keels, population 51, which has averaged 475 ppb since 2005.
In Prince Rupert, reporters with the Tainted Water investigation collected tap water samples at 16 homes in December and had them tested by an accredited lab. THM levels exceeded Health Canada’s guidelines at every house with readings as high as 176 ppb.
Nationwide, 95 Indigenous communities have reported exceedances –– some dating back a decade and reaching five times the acceptable concentration –– according to a 2016 Health Canada memo to the minister of health obtained through an access to information request.
These include Attawapiskat, 490 kilometres north of Timmins, and Eabametoong, 360 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, two First Nations communities where local chiefs declared states of emergency in July, due to elevated levels of THMs.
In March 2017, Ontario’s Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks recommended New Tecumseth undertake a “comprehensive THM sampling survey” to provide “more representative THM data” since the single testing point the town was using raised concerns that elevated THM levels elsewhere in the distribution system “would not be detected,” reads a March 2019 ministry letter to town officials.
Nine months later, the regional medical officer also “urged the town to follow the MECP recommendation for a more comprehensive THM sample survey.”
But it didn’t happen until May 2018 — 14 months after the ministry made the request.
In a written statement, the ministry said: “No reason was provided for the time elapsed between the March 17, 2017 inspection report recommendation and the completion of the initial THM sample survey undertaken on May 14, 2018. It should be noted that this was a recommendation and not a legal requirement.”
Inside Nancy McBride’s home, you’ll find an 18-litre blue water jug positioned just outside the kitchen.
This is the only source of water for drinking and cooking for McBride and her daughters. They go through two jugs every three days. The hot tub in the backyard is filled with water she pays to truck in. For showering and washing clothes and hands, municipal water is the only feasible option, a decision McBride makes tentatively every day.
In 2016, McBride and Cheryl Anne Schmidt started Tottenham-Water, whose members often meet at McBride’s kitchen table. That was the same year McBride first asked for a public meeting. It took three years of lobbying to make it happen.
“It is my experience that when it comes to protecting water…people are forced to do the work for which they thought they had elected political representatives,” said Mike Balkwill, campaign chair for Wellington Water Watchers. “People like Nancy are forced to take time away from their families and raise funds in the community for experts and lawyers to make the politicians do their job — to protect the public interest.”
At the meeting in April, Cheryl Glecoff asked Simcoe-Muskoka County health officer Dr. Charles Gardner what she could do to personally ensure the safety of her water. The panel suggested a reverse osmosis system or carbon filter for her home — both of which cost hundreds of dollars.
“I was shaking when I left that meeting,” said the 38-year-old mother of two in an interview. “I went into full panic mode…I raised my babies on that water. We were drinking that water since we moved here in 2008. I didn’t know the severity of it. I feel terrible. There’s guilt.”
Residents complained about the death of pets, unexplained health issues and damage to home appliances they believe trace back to the water. Among those health concerns: cancer.
At the meeting, Dana Stocco spoke about her own struggle with cancer at the Stronach Regional Cancer Centre.
“The number of faces that I see at Stronach from the residents of this town is insane,” she said. “It is not justifiable.”
Seven months later, the 47-year-old says she’s still fighting the disease.
“There’s no way to prove it,” she says. “But my gut is that it has something to do with the water.
“I feel like (town officials) dropped the ball…You’d think after Walkerton they’d be quicker to deal with things like this.”
When Stocco spoke in front of the crowd that night, Tiffany Sokyrko, a cancer survivor and school teacher who raised two daughters in Tottenham, was in the audience. The 46-year-old, who has lived in town for 15 years, learned about THMs for the first time that night.
“You start thinking in a million different directions, questioning everything. I knew the the water wasn’t great, but I was told it’s just aesthetic, it’s fine, it’s fine…And then my mind just started spinning. I raised my babies here. I bathed them in the water. They drank the water. I made food with the water. You have a flashback of all the things that involved this poison.
“The impact of our dangerous water is a huge physical, mental and financial burden on my family, as well as many others.”
In an interview, the health unit’s Gardner said there has been little substantial evidence of a cancer cluster in Tottenham. But that provides little comfort to many residents.
One survey respondent said she is “full of anxiety and panic” about her children taking baths or even touching the water coming from the taps. Another, the parents of a child who died earlier this year with cystic fibrosis, said they used tap water to fill the machines that assisted with his breathing.
“His health was not bad but took a huge decline not long after moving to Tottenham last September. I do now believe the drinking water is most likely to blame knowing that his immune system was too weak to defend him from any and all (contaminants) in the water in Tottenham.”
McBride says she has her own theories about respiratory issues and skin rashes experienced by her two daughters she fears could have connections to the water.
She says she’s among the two-thirds of Tottenham residents who have considered leaving because of the town’s water. But she says she’s staying to push for change.
“Everybody just leaving town is not the answer to clean water. This whole issue, this fight, is going to continue until we start treating it as a priority.”
With files from Lauren Donnelly and Ainslie Cruickshank