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City needs to be cautious with chemical leaking from Lee's Creek says expert

Exposure to the most well-studied of these substances has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid problems, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, changes in hormone functioning in adults and adverse developmental effects and decreased immune response in children

An immunotoxicity expert at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine, Dr. Jamie DeWitt, says the city needs to take seriously the leak of highly fluorinated chemicals, often referred to as polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFASs, into Trout Lake, the source of North Bay's drinking water.

PFASs, are synthetic compounds that have been produced for decades. These foams are used for putting out high-intensity fires and are used by military personnel and at airports where the risk of high-intensity fires can be high.

This week the Health Unit and 22 Wing North Bay announced testing was being done on Lee's Creek and local wells to test for PFASs. The city water filtration plant is less than a kilometre across Delaney Bay from Lee's Creek.

See: Don't drink water or eat fish from this city waterway

The Health Unit says the levels of PFAS detected in Trout Lake, and in municipal water are below Health Canada’s Drinking Water Screening Values, while the levels of PFAS detected in Lee’s Creek are above Health Canada’s values. 

Dr. DeWitt, an Associate Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology urges caution.

"These health advisory levels that are considered safe are usually based on studies done on animals. If we know a certain concentration of chemical X produces health problems in animals, for the human level we usually reduce it by several orders of magnitude. So most of these advisories are based on animals and that's on the assumption that humans are more sensitive than animals and will respond similarly to animals.

"In studies of humans we do know that exposed humans can experience health effects, but the problem is that when you get from what's at the source of exposure, to what's in human blood, to what health effects might occur, it's hard to predict it. So there is uncertainty associated with these health effects. I don't want to say there isn't a concern but the probability of health effects occurring should be low.

"Most of the compounds we find associated with these foams at military bases and airports are largely unstudied. We don't know what they do toxicologically, so that's why I say there could be a concern because there's a bunch of compounds in the water that you're probably not measuring and have never been studied. 

"And that's what the general public can be scared about because there are a lot of compounds in their water that we haven't studied yet and we don't know if they are going to produce health effects...we just don't know. That can be very scary for somebody who puts trust in the municipality that they are going to make the water safe for them to drink."

She says a lot of municipalities are now using specialized filters known as granulated activated carbon filters, however, Communications Officer Jaclyn Bucik told BayToday that, "Our water treatment plant on Trout Lake does not currently use granulated activated carbon filters." 

Dr. DeWitt is part of an international group of researchers that co-authored a feature article in the most recent edition of the journal Environmental Science & Technology calling for regulation of an entire class of highly fluorinated chemicals.

PFASs also are used to make items water-repellant, stain-resistant and nonstick. They can be found in products such as furniture, cosmetics, clothing, cookware and food packaging.

“Certainly, the compounds are important in keeping firefighters safe as they do their jobs, but are they necessary in keeping our cupcakes from sticking to the pan or for keeping our carpeting stain-free given the potential for their exposure to induce health effects? I think that if consumers are aware of their potential toxicity, they may want PFAS-free options for their products,” said DeWitt.

The four researchers from the United States, Sweden, and Switzerland explain that this class of chemicals does not break down and can remain in the environment for thousands of years. Remnants of these compounds have high detection levels in surface water.

Exposure to the most well-studied of these substances has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid problems, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, changes in hormone functioning in adults and adverse developmental effects and decreased immune response in children.

“Companies like IKEA are putting consumer safety first and are removing these compounds from their textiles. PFAS-free is an option and consumers should be given the knowledge to make a decision that is the best for their homes, their families, and their lives,” said DeWitt.

Meanwhile, Bucik emailed this response from the city. "The health and safety of residents is a top priority.  As a City we work very hard to protect our drinking water sources in order to provide our residents with a safe supply of drinking water.  We have been and remain engaged in this process and continue to work collaboratively with the Department of National Defence, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, and the Health Unit in monitoring and responding to this issue.

"At this time the level of PFAS detected in Trout Lake and the City’s municipal drinking water remain below the Drinking Water Screening Values set out by Health Canada."

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Jeff Turl

About the Author: Jeff Turl

Jeff is a veteran of the news biz. He's spent a lengthy career in TV, radio, print and online, covering both news and sports. He enjoys free time riding motorcycles and spoiling grandchildren.
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