Chronicling unsafe drinking water

Elizabeth Brubaker

On a typical day, there are more than 1,500 drinking water warnings in place across Canada. Today, the Water Chronicles web site lists 1,533 such warnings, including 70 do-not-consume orders and 1,463 boil-water advisories. The bulk of these are found in four provinces: Saskatchewan (356), British Columbia (332), Quebec (308), and Newfoundland & Labrador (278).

Drinking water warnings do not necessarily signify wide-spread contamination. Some advisories are very limited, affecting a single building. And some are simply issued as precautions, reflecting concerns about improperly functioning systems or those undergoing maintenance. Nonetheless, the large number of warnings serves as a sobering reminder that many Canadians cannot drink the water flowing from their taps.

Canada has no single official source of information on drinking water warnings. Reporting requirements and posting procedures vary by province. Every day, the editors of the Water Chronicles web site cobble together information from a number of sources, including communications with provincial governments, media advisories, and regional health authority web sites.

Unsafe water in Ontario

The Water Chronicles editors note that Ontario no longer maintains a public advisory web site, and that their list of 81 warnings for the province is not current.

Ontario’s Chief Drinking Water Inspector provides information on drinking water quality across the province, but does not provide the number or location of short-term boil-water advisories. In his most recent Annual Report (for the 2008-09 year), the Inspector noted that 452 municipal systems experienced a total of 1,769 “adverse water quality incidents” over the course of the year. Of these incidents, 472 involved microbiological contamination, and thus would have likely triggered boil-water advisories. Hundreds of other incidents involving chemical or radiological contamination, high sodium, turbidity, low chlorine levels, low UV dosage, pressure problems, water main breaks, and equipment failure may likewise have resulted in drinking water warnings.

Tyler Owens combed through the Inspector’s 2008-09 report to find the municipal water systems with the worst drinking water quality test results. He compiled a list of the 26 systems where fewer than 99 percent of the tests met drinking water standards. These systems serve almost 65,000 Ontarians. Click here to find out where the systems are located, who owns and operates them, how many people they serve, and what percentage of the tests met standards.

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