Uranium in the water

The presence of natural uranium in some drilled wells on the Algonquin reserve near Maniwaki and around the town shows that wells in the Outaouais should be tested for the metal, the region’s medical officer of health said yesterday.

Yesterday, the Outaouais health department warned people in the Upper Gatineau Valley to have their wells tested. But Dr. Lucie Lemieux said wells should be checked across the Outaouais, because she cannot guarantee wells elsewhere in the region are uranium-free.

Chief Jean-Guy Whiteduck said the Algonquins have known since the mid-1990s that about one-third of the reserve’s wells contain more than the 20 parts per billion of uranium that Canadian drinking water standards allow. He said some wells off the reserve near Maniwaki contain up to 1,400 parts per billion. Other tests showed two types of radium in some reserve wells. Health officials warn radium absorbed by the body over time can cause bone cancer.

Dr. Lemieux said drinking water containing small quantities of uranium can cause kidney problems, but such problems are reversible when people consume water that is free of the metal.

“This story started a few years ago when Health Canada noticed there was uranium in the water on the Kitigan Zibi reserve and recommended that people drink bottled water,” Dr. Lemieux said. “People who were living around the reserve asked us what they should do.

“We don’t know yet whether this is more widespread than just the Upper Gatineau Valley.
“It is less likely to be a problem in Chelsea or Cantley, but I can’t say there is no uranium in wells there. If you have a private well you should have the tests done.”

Dr. Lemieux said private laboratories in the Montreal area can test well water for uranium for about $50. She said property owners can install filters to eliminate uranium from their water if the level is too high.

A spokeswoman for Accutest Laboratories of Nepean said a uranium test can be purchased for as little as $12.50, but there is a $20 minimum for general testing. The Outaouais health department plans to provide information abouturanium in well water on its website,www.santepublique-outaouais.qc.ca.

Lionel Whiteduck, the director of health and social services for the Kitigan Zibi reserve 130 kilometres north of Gatineau said a Quebec Ministry of Health warning that wells near Maniwaki should be tested for uranium “tells only part of the story about well water.”

Lionel Whiteduck said some wells contain radium. He said Health Canada officials told the band they should not drink the water because it could eventually cause bone cancer.

Federal government officials installed well water filters throughout the reserve, but they later removed them when scientists discovered they only concentrated the uranium.

“No one in the community is to consume the water for health precautions,” Mr. Whiteduck said. “We can’t use it for cooking, drinking or anything.

“One of the most important things that the province left out of the warning is that when the government found uranium it also found radium 226 and radium 228. In some wells where uranium was almost absent they found radium and nobody is talking about radium.”

Mr. Whiteduck said some families purified their water using reverse osmosis, but the equipment became radioactive.

Indian Affairs advised the Algonquins to drink only bottled water and warned all residents not to allow any animals to drink well water. The department now supplies two 18-litre bottles of water a week to each family on the reserve.

Rolland Duguay, Health Canada’s manager of environmental health services for aboriginal reserves in Quebec said uranium and radium may be in many wells throughout the region.

“Given that our studies showed that the problem is far beyond the reserve we have advised the public health people,” Mr. Duguay said. “The problem depends on the rock formation underground and is not in every community.

“It goes beyond Kitigan Zibi and probably exists throughout the Outaouais.”

Mr. Duguay estimated the cost of a complete water test for radioactive elements by a private laboratory at about $200.

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