NRC staff warned about tainted drinking water two years before notifying neighbours

originally posted on May 25, 2016


The National Research Council protected its own staff from firefighting chemicals in their drinking water for nearly two years before it told its neighbours about the problem, Postmedia has learned.

Chemicals used in the NRC’s National Fire Lab in Mississippi Mills have spread through the surface water and groundwater around the facility.

In December, the NRC warned neighbours that they should get their well water tested. And it began supplying bottled water and filtration systems to the neighbours.

Some of the wells contain a class of chemicals called PFAS (perfluorinated alkylated substances) which are contained in firefighting foam and also consumer products including non-stick frying pans and stain-resistant carpets.

But documents released under an access to information request by Postmedia show the NRC had declared its own well water unsafe to drink two years earlier. It warned its own employees and gave them bottled water — but didn’t tell the neighbours — back in January, 2014.

Even before that, an NRC-commissioned engineering study completed in February, 2013, found the controversial chemicals in tapwater inside the building, in a small creek nearby, and in the soil. PFAS may be carcinogens at high rates of exposure, although this is uncertain in humans.

In January of 2014, NRC management warned employees: “As instructed by the NRC Environmental Office, faucet water at the Fire Lab U-96 is not to be consumed for drinking purposes. Until further notice, bottled water will be provided for drinking purposes.”

It calls the chemical level “acceptable,” but then adds: “until a decision is made on the health impact to staff at U-96, we are instructed NOT TO DRINK WATER AT U-96.”

The bottled water started flowing from a Culligan supplier almost immediately, with a shipment worth $360 delivered Jan. 21, 2014. Invoices provided through the access-to-information request show Culligan has been suppling bottled water ever since.

The engineering report of 2013 says “it appears the perfluorinated chemicals have migrated from the most likely source (fire suppressing chemicals used in Building U-96 and surrounding area) through the groundwater and storm drainage systems to the shallow groundwater table and into the local surface water system.”

Levels in the creek were above the recommended limits for aquatic habitats.

Shaun McLaughlin, the mayor of Mississippi Mills, says the NRC moved promptly to notify residents once its testing revealed that contamination had spread outside the NRC’s own property. Before last year, he said, the NRC hadn’t done the testing that showed contamination outside its own property.

In an interview Wednesday he credited NRC with being proactive in supplying clean water and filtration, and said it’s a good source of information for the local residents.

But J.D. Heffern, who chairs a citizens’ committee dealing with the issue, said there were too many delays.

“They went for almost a year before telling their employees that you can’t drink the water,” he said.

“They went at least another year until they started to do some looking at their outer perimeter and then in towards the community that is in question, which is my residential area.” He said the NRC should have tested outside its property right after finding the contamination in 2013.

“PFAS are not found in nature. They are very specific and the Number One source is firefighting foams,” he said. Although the chemical levels are mostly below the Health Canada screening level, “regardless, they are in the water and they shouldn’t be.”

He has PFAS in his well.

An NRC spokesman said it took at least two years to determine the nature of the problem and discover that it reached beyond the Fire Lab’s own site because of “scientific process.”

You’re trying to figure out what you’re trying to look for, said Charles Drouin. “Then you go and do it and get your results. That takes a few weeks. Then you analyze your results. That can take up to a month and then you determine what your next course of action will be.”

“You can’t drill during the wintertime,” and as well the analysts didn’t know which way the groundwater moved, he said. The direction of flow can change with the season and can vary at different depths.

“It took us about two years to go to this extension of the environmental assessment, which brought us to 2015 in the fall, when they were actually getting to the property line.”

“It’s a complicated process.”

According to Heffern, the water problems caused more than just environmental damage, financial costs, and worries about health risks. There are emotional issues too: “Kids have come home in tears because their classmates have been bullying them at school, saying they are going to die because they have been drinking this water.”

But how much of the chemical is too much? This is still an unsolved question for health experts.

There are no formal guidelines from Health Canada — only “screening values” meant as a suggested guide. Besides, PFAS is not one chemical but a family of them, which are unlikely all to pose an identical hazard.

Health Canada says: “Short-term exposure to PFAS in drinking water at levels slightly higher than these screening values is not expected to have health effects as screening values are based on a lifetime of exposure to the substance. Potential health risks from exposure significantly above the screening values depend on how much PFAS a person was exposed to, and for how long he/she was exposed.

“High levels of PFAS have been linked with negative health effects in animal studies, including liver damage and impacts on neurological development. However, there is little information available on human health risks associated with PFAS.”

Perfluorinated alkylated substances are also contained in consumer products such as some non-stick cooking ware and stain-resistant carpets.

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