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Today, there are at least 486 community-wide drinking water advisories in Canada. (Thinkstock/Thinkstock)
Today, there are at least 486 community-wide drinking water advisories in Canada. (Thinkstock/Thinkstock)

How safe is Canada's drinking water? It's tough to know Add to ...

If there's one thing we can take for granted in Canada it's that the water coming out of our taps is clean and pure.

Right?

Well, we may well be deluding ourselves.

Every day in this country there are roughly 1,000 boil-water advisories - warnings from public health authorities that tap water is unsafe to drink, that it poses a risk to cause illness or transmit disease.

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Today, there are at least 486 community-wide drinking water advisories in places such as Sedley, Sask., and Cox's Cove, Nfld.

Some of these warnings are new and temporary, but others have been in place for decades. Portugal Cove, Nfld., for example, has had a boil-water advisory since 1984.

The other 500 or so active advisories are in more contained but no less worrisome areas like nursing homes, provincial parks, schools, summer camps and so on - places where people are particularly vulnerable.

If the numbers are prefaced with terms like "approximately" and "at least" it is because there is no central repository for this information. In fact, there is not even a standard way of conveying warnings about drinking water safety. The terminology and the availability of information varies considerably between provinces, regions and even local health units.

Jeff Aramini is trying to change that troubling state of affairs with an initiative called Health and Safety Watch. ( www.healthandsafetywatch.com) "We think information is a key part of the safety net and our goal is to make it as easy as possible to get hold of this information," he said.

Dr. Aramini, an epidemiologist who formerly worked at the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada, has a bare-bones operation. It is essentially a website. "We got some start-up funding from Industry Canada but we're currently unfunded," he said.

Nonetheless, the site has a wealth of information on food recalls, drug safety warnings, infectious disease outbreaks and, of course, drinking water advisories.

Dr. Aramini is, like many scientists, pragmatic. "Having advisories that aren't available or understandable is not very useful," he said, with typical understatement.

Yet, while he tacitly recognizes that the way governments communicate public health information is often abysmal, he is careful not to point fingers. "It's not really anybody's fault. It's just the way things have evolved over time," he said.

But he hopes the next step in the evolution will be "making this information as easy to find as the weather report."

There is a long way to go. Some governments don't even publish boil-water advisories - meaning they make no effort to have information available beyond affected communities, often through an ad in a community newspaper. This 19th-century way of doing things puts travellers and visitors at risk and hides some important policy matters from the public eye.

The situation is particularly gruesome on native reserves, too many of which have Third World sewage and water. Unfortunately, information on the problem spots is not available on the Health and Safety Watch website because it is not released in a meaningful form by Health Canada.

With some digging on Health Canada's website, you can learn that there are currently 111 drinking water advisories in the 600-odd first nations communities but not the names of specific reserves that are affected.

Some of these problems are not trivial. The Six Nations of Grand River, a burgeoning community of 17,000 in the heart of Southern Ontario, has struggled for decades with poor water quality but it is currently building a larger water filtration plant that should be up and running by year's end. "In today's world, we seem to forget the importance of the value of water in everyday lives," said Chief William Montour.

We in the media - firmly rooted in big cities - also tend to ignore problems that bedevil rural and remote communities unless they reach dramatic proportions: Walkerton, Ont., where E. coli contaminated water killed seven people in 2000; North Battleford, Sask., where 7,000 residents fell ill when the water supply was tainted with cryptosporidium parasite in 2001 or; the Kashechewan reserve in Northern Ontario evacuation of 800 residents because of E. coli contamination of the water supply in 2005.

Of course, we need to maintain some perspective. Globally, about 885 million people live without any access to clean water. It is a major source of death, illness and economic burden. In Canada our water woes pale in comparison.

Still, there is a health impact from poor quality water, though determining the levels of gastroenteritis and diarrhea with any precision is near-impossible.

The reality is that it's virtually impossible to adequately filter and treat everyone's water, particularly in sparsely populated regions, even in a wealthy country like Canada.

Presumably, boil-water advisories are issued for a reason, because there is a real potential risk. As the population ages and increasing numbers of people live with immune deficiencies related to cancer and other chronic illnesses, these risks become all the greater.

Do public health officials - and governments more broadly - not have an obligation to ensure the public has safe drinking water?

Or, at the very least, do they not have an obligation to make information about unsafe water available to the public so they can protect themselves?

If they are incapable of transparency and effective communication, then the least they can do is to make information more readily available to those who can translate and package it, like such as Health and Safety Watch.

Investing in the timely dissemination of health information is certainly cheaper than mopping up after another Walkerton.

 

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