Eternal contaminants in the drinking water of Quebec cities
The drinking water of almost all Quebec cities contains traces of PFAS, pollutants potentially carcinogenic, reveals a large study. According to scientists, Saint-Donat, in Lanaudière, and Val-d'Or, in Abitibi, show worrying concentrations.
The municipality of Saint-Donat is a vacation resort in Lanaudière. Outdoor enthusiasts meet there and mingle with the local population, which has 4,000 inhabitants.
Benoît Barbeau welcomes us to him, in Saint-Donat, in the chalet where he grew up and which he now owns.
Nearly 40 centimeters of snow should fall in the next few hours, good news for the municipality whose economy depends in particular on winter tourism.
While the centimeters accumulate outside, Benoît Barbeau offers us a coffee. I have a filter pitcher that I use, he says. To fill his coffee machine with water, as a precaution, he uses a pitcher fitted with a filter. The 50-year-old is particularly aware of the problems affecting drinking water. The engineer specializes in water treatment. He is also a professor, co-holder of the Industrial Drinking Water Chair at Polytechnique Montréal.
Benoît Barbeau is an engineer, specialized in processing waters. He advises several Quebec municipalities, including Saint-Donat, on the subject.
Since 2021, his municipality has been the subject of a public health advisory on the presence of manganese in drinking water. But more recently, an argument has been added to justify the relevance of a filter pitcher.
Last fall, he learned that fellow scientists had discovered PFAS, potentially carcinogenic eternal contaminants, in the water of Saint-Donat, whose supply comes from the water table.
Researchers sampled the drinking water of 376 Quebec municipalities, in 17 administrative regions. The exercise began in 2018 and represents the most complete portrait carried out to date in the field in Quebec. The research project was published in the scientific journal Water Research.
We notice that, out of 300 municipalities, there are 2 with higher concentrations, noted Benoît Barbeau by consulting the study, of which he is not the author. Saint-Donat is one of them, as is Val-d'Or, also supplied with groundwater.
The presence of PFAS in drinking water is not a surprise in itself. PFAS are found almost everywhere around us. But the levels detected in Val-d'Or and Saint-Donat are cause for concern, according to experts.
Sébastien Sauvé leads a team of researchers who focus in particular on compounds of emerging interest, including those found in biosolids.
These two sites are really high. I think we have to try to do something to reduce the exposure of people who drink this water, believes Sébastien Sauvé, professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Montreal, who oversaw the large study. .
“For me, it's clear that if I had family in Saint-Donat or Val-d'Or, I would recommend at least trying to get treatment. extra at home and to push for something to be done because I would be a little worried. »
— Sébastien Sauvé
The Saint-Donat results show the presence of a total of 68 to 82 nanograms/litre (ng/L) of PFAS per sample.
In Val-d'Or, the samples vary from 35 to 171 ng/L.
There is no standard in Quebec on the presence of PFAS in water. However, on February 7, 2023, Health Canada proposed a new threshold. The Canadian agency advocates a precautionary approach, as it does not have details on the occurrence and severity of the health effects of PFAS.
It is proposed to set the target for the sum of total PFAS concentrations detected in drinking water at 30 ng/L, Health Canada said in the document under consultation until 12 april. A new official recommendation will then be established.
The samples from Saint-Donat would therefore more than double this proposal if it were adopted. In Val-d'Or, the concentration of one of the samples would be almost six times higher. Two other municipalities exceed this proposal: Sainte-Adèle, in the Laurentians, and Sainte-Cécile-de-Milton, in Estrie. Their levels vary between 30 and 36 ng/L.
A vast study, of which Radio-Canada obtained a copy, measured the presence of PFAS, potentially carcinogenic eternal pollutants, in the drinking water of 376 Quebec municipalities. Almost all of them contain it, which is not a surprise in itself. These contaminants are found almost everywhere around us. But two municipalities, Saint-Donat, in Lanaudière, and Val-d'Or, in Abitibi, show, according to some scientists, worrying concentrations.
Public health in Quebec did not want to answer our questions, since work is still in progress. In the office of Dr. Luc Boileau, the national director of public health, it is specified that public health experts must take the time to consult the scientific documentation in order to synthesize it and draw conclusions.
The results of the research from the University of Montreal were communicated in May 2021 to the Ministry of the Environment and in the fall of 2022 to Health Canada, confirms the co-author of the study Sébastien Sauvé.< /p>
“It's probably prudent that there is an official message and not just a TV report to document and explain. People are going to be worried, people are going to want to understand.
— Sébastien Sauvé
Health Canada also declined our interview request. Health Canada experts will not comment in interviews on specific results in the provinces and territories, we were told.
Researcher Marc-André Verner specializes in public health and works on issues related to PFAS.
Associate Professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Montreal, Marc-André Verner, teaches in the Department of Environmental Health. The researcher specializes in public health and works on issues related to PFAS.
He recalls that at present, no one knows the threshold of PFAS from which adverse health effects are observed, such as impacts on fetal growth, changes in circulating cholesterol levels and cancer risks. , such as kidney cancer.
Precaution is therefore in order, according to him. It's not bad to filter your water, to change your water source.
Since this is an individual measure and unequal in the population, here is the best advice the researcher gives to the citizens of the two municipalities concerned: I think the first thing to do is to contact the Municipality and expose our concerns. We must try to get the Municipality to move.
Drinking water is tested by researchers from the Ministry of Environment of Quebec.
The Quebec Ministry of the Environment ensures that drinking water is of good quality in Quebec. The microbiologist and head of the drinking water division, Philippe Cantin, was appointed to answer our questions. He is proud of the work of his team and he defends it.
“It's a reason to move to Quebec. We have plenty of water. It is of good quality. »
— Philippe Cantin
His department has been monitoring PFAS in drinking water since 2007. Since 2018, it has given a directive to consider this issue in the design guide for drinking water production facilities.
Sébastien Sauvé's laboratory is one of the most sophisticated in the world. For his study, he analyzed 42 types of PFAS in city water.
Microbiologist Philippe Cantin recognizes that Professor Sauvé is a leader in his field, that he has really state-of-the-art equipment that performs very well. After learning the results of the Montreal study, the ministry's experts analyzed their own samples in Val-d'Or and Saint-Donat.
Microbiologist Philippe Cantin heads the drinking water division at the Ministry of the Environment.
“Our results pretty much corroborate what Mr. Sauvé found. We cannot dispute his results. »
— Philippe Cantin, microbiologist
However, his assessment of the results is different. I would drink the water without hesitation in Val-d'Or and Saint-Donat because the concentrations are very low. I wouldn't worry about myself or my family.
According to him, the concentrations of PFAS found in the water of the majority of the 376 municipalities concerned are equivalent to a tablespoon in an Olympic stadium filled with water.
But in Saint- Donat and in Val-d'Or, the levels are substantially higher than elsewhere in Quebec.
Philippe Cantin explains that, rather than having in Val-d'Or Gold a tablespoon in the Olympic stadium, we would have 11 or 12 maybe.
He fears that informing the population generates unnecessary fears. For Mr. Cantin, the situation requires special attention, but there is no urgency to change the source of drinking water or to put in place other solutions very quickly.
In the same breath, however, the expert encourages municipalities to adopt preventive measures to reduce the exposure of residents.
The backup well, in operation since 2008, is used during peak periods. According to the City, it is located very close to a former landfill.
On January 16, Radio-Canada informed the Municipality of Val-d'Or of the results of the investigation by the University of Montreal, which the Ministry of the Environment had held since May 2021.
Two days after our call, on January 18, Val-d'Or contacted Sébastien Sauvé to obtain the details of his study and made the decision to source only from his main well, she wrote to us. in an email.
Val-d'Or has a main well and a make-up well that collect water from separate water tables, according to the Municipality.
The City ordered new tests from Professor Sauvé to distinguish the levels of contamination in each of the two wells.
These tests finally revealed levels of 155 to 171 ng/L in the backup well. Val-d'Or therefore decided, in mid-February, to definitively condemn this well, in operation since 2008, which was used during peak periods.
Samples of water from the main well indicate levels of 35 to 37 ng/L.
City Councilor Benjamin Turcotte is not at all worried. Val-d’Or water is one of our prides. Me, I drink it every day and I have no problem getting my family members to drink it.
He wants to reassure the population: Drinking water which is distributed from the main well is just above Health Canada's future target. We are working in collaboration with the various ministries to ensure that in the future this is still the case.
Despite these reassuring words, the population of Val-d'Or has not yet been informed of the situation. The City announced the holding of a press briefing on this subject, a few days before the release of the Inquiry report.
Saint-Donat drinking water is already subject to a public health advisory for the presence of manganese.
To drink or not to drink the water, opinions differ. But one thing is certain: to make an informed decision, citizens must first be informed. The mayor of Saint-Donat admits that he is not an expert on the issue and that he feels poorly equipped.
Joé Deslauriers inquired about the situation with from the Lanaudière regional public health department. Are you going to issue a press release? Are you going to do something?
Benoît Barbeau also challenges the authorities. Ultimately, in cases like this, public health must speak out. I hope she does.
Marc-André Verner thinks so too. Municipalities should know that there is a contamination problem. Then, together with the population, the authorities should take action to reduce this exposure.
On January 23, the mayor of Saint-Donat finally took the initiative to inform his citizens himself during a public meeting of the municipal council.
There is a report that will be released soon on Radio-Canada, that's why we find it important to tell you, he explained. We put all of this in the hands of public health, the INSPQ, which has the responsibility and the duty to inform the people of Quebec.
The ecocentre of Saint-Donat is located very close to the heart of the village.
The chemical signature of the water samples taken at Saint-Donat makes it possible to hypothesize the source of contamination.
According to the researcher Sauvé, the use of extinguishing foam during fires would be in question. The contamination would come from the landfill, but probably more from the mosses that were added to the site. A hydrogeological study would be necessary to get to the bottom of it. The Municipality is trying to find out more about this lead.
Concentrations of PFAS in the environment could be higher in areas surrounding facilities that use large quantities of these chemicals and near areas where PFAS-containing foams have been used to extinguish fires.
Source: Health Canada
The landfill site was closed in the early 1980s and now houses the Saint-Donat ecocentre.
In Val-d'Or, the elected officials have no hypothesis on the source of contamination, but they will take steps to try to find out.
Around the world, health agencies are tightening standards on PFAS in drinking water. Meanwhile, eternal pollutants do not disappear. All municipalities will therefore have to be on the lookout in the future.
According to Sébastien Sauvé, the take-home message is that we are contaminating all our water sources and putting it everywhere, so we are a bit forced to live with a certain exposure that we have to accept.
Last October, Saint-Donat was informed of possible contamination of its source of drinking water.
The mayor Joé Deslauriers welcomes us to his office, glass of water in hand. It is the water of my municipality. There is no ban on drinking this water. She is very good. All municipal councilors also drank this water during the municipal council meeting informing the population of the presence of PFAS in the water.
We, the cities in Quebec, we refer to public health, he adds. If there had been something really bad, they would have told us, “Stop!” Which is not the case.
The elected officials of Saint-Donat became aware of this data when they plan to build a new water treatment plant. water due to manganese issues. They therefore have a more complete picture of the situation before making major investments.
The project they are working on is to abandon groundwater to favor water from surface of Lac Archambault.
The report by Maude Monteambeault and Jo-Ann Demers is broadcast on Enquête Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ICI Télé. It is also available for catch-up on ICI TOUT.TV.