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Newfoundland slow to notify well users of arsenic

The Newfoundland government is changing its protocol for notifying people about drinking-water hazards after residents of two communities complained that they learned about high levels of arsenic in their water almost six months after tests were done.

The province has asked an Ottawa-area laboratory to flag immediately any elevated chemical levels that it finds in drinking-water samples sent from Newfoundland, Paul Dean, deputy environment minister, said yesterday. About 200 people living in the communities of Chapel Cove and Holyrood, west of St. John's, were ordered not to drink water from their wells earlier this week after tests found it was contaminated.

In the case of Chapel Cove, wells that 70 families depend on as their source of water contained arsenic levels 12 times the acceptable Canadian guidelines. About 30 people in the Holyrood area found out that the arsenic levels in their well also exceeded the guideline.

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The tests on the drinking water were done in August, but residents are angry that they didn't find out about the elevated arsenic and lead levels until earlier this week.

"Taking five months to get an answer about the water you drink is totally ridiculous. We're dealing with people's lives," Bob French, the member of the provincial assembly for Conception Bay South, which includes Holyrood, said in an interview yesterday.

No illnesses have been reported from drinking the water and the local medical officer of health will start testing hair samples from Chapel Cove next week to determine residents' long-term exposure to the chemical. Arsenic occurs naturally in the volcanic rock in the area.

The high readings were obtained in a sampling of drinking water in 300 communities done by the provincial Department of the Environment. Those results were sent to a laboratory in Nepean, Ont., and the raw data were sent back to St. John's for analysis in early November. It took provincial officials until January to isolate the readings for Chapel Cove, Mr. Dean said yesterday.

He said that residents with the problem wells are now getting bottled water from the municipality.

The provincial government and the local government are looking at establishing a pumping station to get water from a local river.

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