What made Shannon so sick?
Solvent in water table: 'Don't drink it, don't bathe in it,
don't breathe it,' health officials warned

Montreal Gazette Fidelman, Charlie

Pierre Vachon saw four members of his family die of cancer - his father 20 years ago; his sister seven years ago, and his mother, a year later.

Three months ago, he buried his brother.

"Two of my kids are sick and my grandchildren, as well," said Vachon, 64, who recently had surgery for skin cancer, as did his younger brother.

The family fears something in their water is killing them. They wonder, who will be next?

Vachon recalls the day in 2000 when health officials came knocking door to door with a warning that trichloroethylene (TCE), a common industrial solvent, had seeped into the underground water table from the adjacent Canadian Forces Base Valcartier:

"Don't drink it, don't bathe in it, don't breathe it," Vachon says he was told.

Five years later, residents have renewed cause for alarm. In a meeting with town officials last month, the regional health department admitted that 21 of 84 new cases of cancer might be linked to TCE poisoning.

Vachon and his dead relatives had lived most of their lives on King's Drive, a small V-shaped street that Shannon folks call the "death triangle" or "red triangle." The street has 21 houses - and 23 cases of cancer.

Vachon's family history is among 200 cases of cancer documented by a local doctor in a small town of 3,700 residents, located 25 kilometres northwest of Quebec City. These include brain, kidney, pancreas, liver, uterus and skin cancer.

Although the health department, a provincial agency, denies a "direct link" between water contaminants and Shannon's health problems, Vachon and his neighbours say that's impossible.

How much proof does the health department need? Shannon residents ask.

"How can they say it's not related? It's not normal that everyone in the family got cancer," said Vachon, who raised four children on King's Drive.

"My neighbour to the right died. My neighbour in front died. The whole

drive - 80 per cent (of those who have died) died of cancer," Vachon said. "We're asking, 'What's going on? What's going to happen to us?' We're scared to see the doctor in case he finds something."

TCE was used for 50 years on the base to clean munitions

Water in the wells on Vachon's street was the most contaminated, measuring TCE as high as 1,200 parts per billion litres. Health Canada's maximum safety limit is 50 ppb. Norms at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are stricter, at five ppb.

TCE is a known carcinogen, and it can cause other conditions, from headaches, nausea and dizziness to nerve damage, impaired heart function and skin rashes.

High-level exposure in the workplace has been linked with leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's, uterus, lung, kidney and liver cancers, regional health director Francois Desbiens said.

Angry residents renewed demands for a medical study after the health department revealed that 21 new cases of cancer in Shannon from 1984 to 2000 could - in theory - be linked to TCE pollution. (An absolute link has been made between TCE and cancer in animal testing - but obviously, humans are not subject to such testing.)

"But it's impossible to make a direct link between TCE and cancer in Shannon," Desbiens said.

Under pressure from the town, the department asked the Quebec Institute of Public Health to determine the feasibility of an epidemiological study. Whether the study can be done will be decided by fall.

"We asked them to confirm whether we are right," Desbiens said. "There's no more cancer in this community than anywhere else in Quebec. That's what our data show."

These cancers could be caused by lifestyle habits, he added.

But townsfolk aren't buying that.

The statistics aren't accurate because they don't include former Shannon residents who got sick or died of cancer after moving away, said Marie-Paule Spieser, a founding member of the grass-roots residents group.

For example, Pierre Vachon's brother's death in Notre Dame de Portneuf isn't on the books, Spieser said: "And we know there many others. So we don't believe the statistics coming from the Health Department."

Spieser is seeking a class-action suit in Quebec Superior Court of up to $330 million on behalf of Shannon residents - past and present - affected by TCE.

The group is suing the federal government and Groupe SNC Lavalin Inc., which owns the facilities on the base where TCE was used from 1953 until 1990.

"I was so worried about my children that I couldn't sleep nights," said Spieser, another King's Drive resident. "We know it's a carcinogen. If only they had warned us. I find that despicable."

In fact, health officials do not know how long exposure occurred in Shannon or the levels of concentration before December 2000, when testing began.

That's when health officials issued strict warnings against drinking the water, bathing in it for more than five minutes or inhaling its vapours.

The warnings stunned the community.

"They told us, 'Don't even cook with it.' And we had to open the windows when showering and bathe quickly," recalled Pierrette Carrier, who runs a wig importing business from her basement on King's Drive.

At Pierre Vachon's house, where his daughter was operating a hair salon, health officials wanted them to move out. "They had the most TCE," Carrier said. "We panicked. What's in the water? I'll never forget that."

The community that once boasted having "pure ground spring water and no chlorination" suddenly had to deliver bottled water to every door.

"There was such tension in the air," Carrier recalled. "And people were angry at the federal government" for not coming forward sooner.

The Department of National Defence had discovered higher than acceptable levels of TCE in the aquifer under the Valcartier garrison in 1997.

Three years later, Shannon residents learned "by accident" that the TCE "had migrated off base" to their private drinking wells. (National Defence wasn't aware of the migration, a spokesperson said.)

Without telling the city, SNC Lavalin (owner of the former munition plant adjacent to the military base) tested the well of an employee living in Shannon.

Rumours of water contamination spread. City testing then started in earnest. "We almost had to declare the area a disaster zone. We needed immediate help," Shannon Mayor Clive Kiley said of the 114 homes on King's Drive and adjacent streets.

Retired physician Claude Juneau said he was furious when he learned of the contamination.

"I started to think about my patients with severe health problems," said Juneau, who treated military personnel and townsfolk in Shannon for 40 years.

He reviewed the medical literature on the solvent's effects. Suddenly it made sense why so many of his patients were afflicted with cancer, mysterious illnesses and symptoms typical of TCE poisoning, he said.

"Entire families were sick with digestive problems, skin disorders, headaches, dizziness," he said. "All that disappeared with bottled water."

When the health department dismissed a TCE connection, Juneau got the blessing of the residents' group to conduct his own epidemiological study.

In the U.S., incidence of brain cancer is four in a population of 100,000, he said: "I have seven or eight cases for the small population here. That's unusual."

Juneau now has 500 case histories on his desk - including 200 cancers. Juneau's study is expected to form the basis of Shannon's class-action suit.

"For the first three years, the health people were telling us they couldn't make the link. Now they say it's possible for 21 cancers," Kiley said. "We're trying to show that there's an awful lot more cancers in a small community."

Coincidentally, Spieser's class action was launched the day the town dropped its $56-million damage suit against the federal government, opting for a $19-million out-of-court settlement.

At least two DND-led studies confirmed the contamination came from the base.

That's on top of the $3.5 million the government initially paid to connect the "red triangle" district to the water system on the Valcartier base, which is supposed to be uncontaminated.

"We settled for $19 million because that's the cost of putting in an aqueduct system," Kiley explained.

About 80 per cent, or 300 homes, are done, and the rest are expected by the end of the year.

But even as Shannon is digging streets to connect to Valcartier, it's seeking a new water source "away from the base and far away from contamination," he said.

The base tap water is subjected to environmental tests twice weekly and is deemed to be safe. But no one will drink it. Residents fear that TCE is only the tip of the iceberg.

"People are worried about it every time a slight trace of something turns up," Kiley said, referring to the latest "flavour" in the water, perchlorate, which is used in rocket fuel.

"Ongoing testing has identified traces of perchlorate" that have leeched into the water table, Doug Drever of DND confirmed.

Josee Vachon, 37, who ran the hair salon on King's Drive until the TCE revelations, was diagnosed soon after with cervical cancer.

"I remember that feeling, like a bomb had dropped," said Vachon, who regularly suffered from headaches, dizziness, fatigue, digestive problems and other symptoms, which ended when she switched water.

But her daughter, Annick Tardif, 12, is still struggling - hyperactivity, attention deficit, learning and behaviour problems.

"I freaked," Vachon said. "I drank it when I was pregnant. ... I drank it, bathed in it and worked in it."

Given the family history, Vachon said she's more afraid today than ever, for herself and her daughter: "I know that I have a good chance of getting sick. Who will help me?"

Rather than a class-action suit, Vachon wants a medical fund set up to help care for Shannon residents.

"I don't want the money. I want my health."

How to keep water safe

The deaths of seven people who drank contaminated water in Walkerton, Ont., five years ago, and three more deaths for the same reason in North Battleford, Sask., a year later, resulted in inquiries that reached similar conclusions about how to protect municipal water supplies.

The recommendations included a multi-barrier approach with five steps:

- Watershed protection.

- Adequate water treatment.

- Safe distribution.

- Monitoring programs.

- Adequate response to adverse conditions.

As for the underground spread of chemical contamination at Shannon, Kathleen Cooper, a researcher with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, said: "This shouldn't happen at all."