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Drinking water quality in B.C. to become a bigger issue as groups debate solutions

Although water is a necessity for life on this planet, we haven’t been treating it with the respect it deserves.

Recent events, notably the fatal E. coli contamination of the water supply in Walkerton, Ontario that killed seven residents and effectively poisoned 2,300 others, have drawn attention to the status of water quality and water treatment in Canada.

Suddenly the country became aware that drinking water is a national problem, and sometimes a regional crisis. There are boil water advisories from coast to coast, in literally every province and territory.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, almost 90 communities are under boil water advisories for a variety of microbial and chemical agents. For about 27 of these communities, the advisories are year-round, and many have been in effect for years as the cash-strapped province can’t afford to dig new wells or build treatment plants for towns with only a few hundred residents.

In British Columbia, the problem is even more serious.

Last August, it was reported that 304 water systems in the province were under boil water advisories, up from 220 communities the previous year. About 65 per cent of these advisories were issued for community water systems that use untreated surface water. About 84 per cent of communities in the province still rely on surface water to some degree, although more and more are tapping into safer, and better protected underground sources.

Surface water can be contaminated by animal waste, human activities, resource industries, and by natural phenomena like blue-green algae blooms.

The number of boil water advisories has gone down to about 240 since August, according to the Ministry of Health Planning, but by any measure that’s 240 too many.

While B.C. hasn’t had an outbreak on the scale of Walkerton, since 1980 there have been 29 confirmed waterborne disease outbreaks in the province caused by micro-organisms like giardia, cryptosporidium and campylobacter.

Provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall says there’s no way to gauge how many people are affected by water-related illnesses on a day-to-day basis, but he believes many British Columbians who feel they’re suffering from stomach flu and food poisoning could really be suffering from contaminated drinking water.

For years, British Columbia has had the highest rate of gastrointestinal illness or stomach illness in Canada – an unusual statistic for a province that is usually first in terms of health, nutrition and fitness.

Drinking water was also a major issue in the last provincial election, and one of the few issues that all parties could agree was a major and immediate concern.

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