An escalation of long-standing issues with its water supply pushed a First Nation in northern Ontario to declare a state of emergency, its chief said Tuesday as he called for help dealing with the problem.
The leader of Eabametoong First Nation said he made the declaration on Friday after tests showed high levels of chemicals in the water supply that are byproducts of treatment materials like chlorine interacting with naturally occurring compounds.
The levels of trihalomethanes were well above Health Canada safety standards, said Chief Harvey Yesno, and have been associated with cancer and reproductive side effects.
"In layman's terms, (the lab) told me it was like a slow poison," Yesno said of the tests conducted in late June. "This is unacceptable, this would not happen in any other municipality across the country."
Residents in the community roughly 360 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., obtain drinking water separately from three stations in the community or use bottled water.
They have been warned, however, to avoid long showers and reduce the amount of time they use to wash dishes. Boiling water is also not advised, Yesno said, as the steam could emit harmful chemicals into the air.
Making the decision to declare a state of emergency wasn't easy and "really raised the anxiety levels" in the community of nearly 1,600 residents, but had to be done, Yesno said.
"We've been dealing with band-aid solutions so far," he said. "We're constantly doing catch-up and catch-up, and that's not good."
Indigenous Services Canada said it was working with Eabametoong on its water quality issues and noted that a new $12-million water treatment plant was set to begin operations in the community next month.
"The new water treatment plant will also address elevated levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs) that were found in recent test results at the existing water treatment plant," spokeswoman Rola Tfaili said in a statement.
Yesno said, however, that he was worried the new plant could contribute to a sewage overflow, which could lead to further problems.
The provincial Ministry of Indigenous Affairs said it was "closely monitoring the situation."
The community has been under a boil-water advisory since 2001.
Riley Yesno, who grew up in Eabametoong, said she experienced the First Nation's water quality issues for years.
The 20-year-old who now lives in Toronto and is the niece of the chief said she remembers having to brush her teeth using a cup of boiled water as a young child.
"I remember the boiled water and having to go out and collect it from the lake, and then everybody washing their hands in the same big pot of dirty water," she said.
"To what point does it need to be before you really step in and interfere and say people have a basic right to water?"
Eabametoong's emergency declaration over water quality comes after one was issued by another Ontario First Nation for similar reasons -- Attawapiskat First Nation said last week that tests had shown its water supply contained potentially harmful levels of trihalomethanes.