No signs to be put up at contaminated lakes

View of Kam Lake in Yellowknife.
The Department of Health and Social Services has no plans to put up signs warning people not to drink water, harvest edible plants or eat fish from lakes around Yellowknife with elevated arsenic levels, such as Kam Lake, above.

There are no plans to put up signs warning residents of contamination in lakes around Yellowknife, according to an updated arsenic advisory the Department of Health and Social Services issued Tuesday.

“From what we’ve heard from our partners, signs are expensive to put up,” said Dr. Andre Corriveau, the territory’s chief public health officer. “They get defaced or vandalized or they just fall over in time.”

The government’s focus is instead to ensure information is accessible for residents and tourists online, at the visitors centre or where people get fishing licences, according to Corriveau.

The Northern Frontier Visitors Centre closed May 15 and visitor services currently offered at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre are expected to end Oct. 1.

“If the city or somebody else wanted to put a sign … we would help them,” said Corriveau. “But at this point we’re not aware of anyone wanting to put signs.”

Last year, Yellowknifer reported the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment planned to work with the city to erect signs informing residents about arsenic, such as at Prospector’s Trail at Fred Henne Territorial Park.

When Yellowknifer requested this week to follow-up on the statement, the city and the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment redirected the paper to the Department of Health and Social Services.

Health and Social Services confirmed the signs had been put up.

Neither the city nor GNWT answered a question about which government would be responsible for erecting signs, were they to be put up.

City councillor Adrian Bell said he’d be in favour of having signs at lakes, but would want to make sure they’re consistent and done properly.

He added there is a cross-jurisdictional issue with who should put the signs up, “so it’s a matter of figuring out who does it.”

Coun. Niels Konge disagrees with putting up signs.

“It is more of a perceived issue than it is a real issue,” he said, adding it is “ridiculous” that people think there should be signs for everything. “At some point people need to take the initiative to educate themselves and take care of their own well-being … Certain things, absolutely, governments need to be involved, but I think we’re getting down into the weeds at this point.”

Tuesday’s updated health advisory comes after a similar one issued this April relied on a nearly 30-year-old study to show Kam Lake had elevated arsenic levels more than 50 times above Health Canada’s safe drinking water guidelines.

The new advisory shows the lake’s arsenic concentration is much lower than previously thought, although still above the safe drinking water guideline.

New testing done this spring by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources found the lake’s arsenic concentration was 240 parts per billion – 24 times higher than the safe drinking water guideline of less than 10 parts per billion.

The advisory recommends residents avoid drinking water from, swimming in, fishing in, and harvesting berries, mushrooms or edible plants around lakes with an arsenic concentration above 52 parts per billion. Residents should not drink the water or eat sediment from those lakes, or catch and release fish there, either.

According to Corriveau, arsenic is a neurotoxin that can cause certain forms of cancer, although health effects from exposure are typically seen over a longer period of time.

He said one-time exposure to lakes with elevated arsenic levels is unlikely to cause “acute side effects,” but regular exposure could be a cause for concern.

He added a study that will gather better data on human health impacts is in the works. There is also research underway on fish health.

“Part of the advice is precautionary because we either don’t have enough data to be precise with regard to fish, for example, or berries,” said Corriveau. “But I think … the lakes being used on a regular basis for recreation are not the ones that are at high levels (of arsenic).”

Other changes in this week’s health advisory include Grace Lake, which moved outside the safe drinking water guideline of less than 10 parts per billion. The environment department’s spring testing showed Grace Lake’s arsenic concentration was 15 parts per billion, but the advisory states lakes at this level are still safe for swimming and fishing.

A few small lakes near Con Mine were also added to this month’s health advisory.

Keg Lake is marked with a yellow dot on the map, indicating its arsenic concentration ranges between 10 to 51.9 parts per billion.

Peg Lake is marked purple for more than 500 parts per billion, while another, unnamed lake is coded orange, meaning it has an arsenic concentration between 52 and 99.9 parts per billion.

Rat Lake is also on the advisory, at 52 to 99.9 parts per billion of dissolved arsenic.

Corriveau said the advisory will be updated when new information is available.