I know this is a wine (and occasionally, spirits) column. But sometimes, infrequently, I veer into other areas to examine an issue that I hope will be of interest, and of import, to Brandon Sun readers.
So in a column a couple of weeks back, I detailed why I don’t drink Brandon tap water. I won’t bore you with a rehashing of all the details, but I’d suffered from stomach cramps and aches and nausea for many years. And when I stopped drinking Brandon tap water, all those problems went away.
This, naturally, led me to wonder just what the heck was up — both with me AND our water supply. So for answers I turned, as I have in the past when I’ve had questions about such matters, to esteemed Brandon University botany and biology professor Bill Paton, who said he, like me, doesn’t drink Brandon tap water. He shared with me letters to the editor he'd written over the years, as well as papers he's published about the ‘deplorable’ — my word, not his — state of Brandon water.
He sent me the following (which I've edited for length):
"The raw water source is the Assiniboine River and my research with my students and classes over the years has repeatedly shown that this would not be an acceptable raw water supply in most countries in the world. We have from time to time measured E.coli at levels as high as 150,000 CFU/100mls (colony-forming unit) — a raw water supply should be zero. This indicates significant fecal contamination upstream. The turbidity of the water is often very high which doesn't assure the absence of the protozoan parasites Giardia and Cryptosporidium, which are in the Assiniboine from time to time. These organisms are not killed by chlorination. Other concerns are the presence of various pesticides and pharmaceuticals. Another concern is the presence of blue-green (algaes) and their toxins — intestinal, liver, nerve and skin.
More recently I have raised with city council and published concerns about lead in many parts of the city and the recent revelation of vastly increased levels of chlorination by-products."
High E.coli levels? Parasites that are not killed by chlorination? Pesticides and pharmaceuticals? Toxins produced by blue-green algae? In our WATER supply?? As if all that wasn’t disturbing enough, I was — and am — even more alarmed by a paper Paton wrote, entitled "Trihalomethanes (THMs) in Brandon’s drinking water — revisited after twenty years," which was published in the ‘Bulletin of the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists’ this past fall. Again, I’ve edited the piece to fit on this page. And the good doctor attributed all the sources from which he drew material — space will not allow that here.
"In 1992, a paper in the American Journal of Public Health entitled ‘Chlorination, Chlorination By-Products, and Cancer: A Meta-analysis’ raised significantly the already existing concerns about a positive association between consumption of chlorination by-products in drinking water and bladder and rectal cancer in humans.
Chlorination — has been the method of choice for water disinfection throughout much of the world. It should be noted that the use of chlorine has greatly reduced the number of waterborne disease outbreaks and deaths due to scourges like cholera, etc. However, in 1974, it was discovered that the combination of chlorine with organic compounds (decaying plants and algae) in drinking water produced chlorinated organic compounds — chloroform in particular, which is known to cause cancer in animals.
This alerted Health and Welfare Canada to readdress the chlorination issue … and consult with all the provinces in an effort to lower the guideline for THMs in drinking water."
In the late 1970s, Paton wrote, a guideline of 50 ppb (parts per billion) was proposed but was rejected by the provinces, which settled for the current 100 ppb. He also noted that any upgrading of water treatment plants would be extremely costly. In 1992, the Brandon average was 64 ppb.
But "in early October 2012, Brandon City Council was given a report on the city’s drinking water supply which highlighted significant average THM levels above the current guideline at the four required measurement sites. The worst samples were measured on August 8, 2012 — 238 ppb at Chalet test station; 243 ppb at Waverly; 222 ppb at Civic Works and 225 ppb at River Heights."
So Brandon’s water situation has deteriorated significantly since 1992. And, Paton wrote, a person’s exposure to these carcinogens doesn’t only come from drinking the water. He went on to say that "a citizen’s exposure to these carcinogens not only arises from drinking the water, but also from showering, bathing and using water for recreation (e.g. swimming, hot tubs, etc). … THMs can be absorbed through skin or inhaled by breathing water vapour when showering or bathing."
Paton’s report was published less than a year-and-a-half ago. And in the 20 years prior to that publication, several studies that link THMs to bladder, rectal and colon cancer were reported. Links to lung and kidney cancer were also suggested. And perhaps most disturbing, a cross-Canada study in 2011 found that THMs were highest in Manitoba.
Paton went on to say that in order to deal with this problem permanently, the city must address the terrible quality of our raw water supply. And neither he nor I blame the folks at the water treatment plant, who do their best with a problematic water source.
If improvements are made, there’s no question costs will be significant. I don’t want my taxes to continue to go up any more than they already do. But how much tax do we pay for costs associated with cancer diagnosis and treatment? Which would you rather spend money on? I’d just as soon fewer people got cancer in the first place. Especially if it’s coming from our water supply.
There’s much more in Paton’s report that refers to the fact other contributors to the Assiniboine watershed are outside Manitoba, and that a multi-governmental strategy to deal with the problem would be necessary to accomplish the clean-up on a grand scale. But I won’t hold my breath ’til that happens.
In the meantime, it’s bottled water, club soda and wine for me. And I’ll have details on some of the latest wines to turn my head in next week’s column.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 22, 2014