Thank you. I would like to thank the committee for inviting Health Canada to appear before you today.
We can move to slide 1 to give a sense of how I'd like to approach this. Initially, I'll briefly discuss the roles and responsibilities of Health Canada as they relate to health and water. Then I'll move to a consideration of the Athabascan region and the particular potential sources of health risk associated with that area. Third, I'll briefly discuss some of the health concerns that have been raised. As you're aware, Dr. John O'Connor and the people of Fort Chipewyan have raised concerns about cancers. Some studies have looked at this issue and have come to certain conclusions, and I'll briefly touch on those. Finally, I'd like to discuss the way forward and give conclusions about where we need to go in the future.
One of our primary roles in Health Canada is drinking water quality. It's important to understand that responsibility for drinking water quality is shared between federal and provincial governments. The federal government has responsibility for the safety of drinking water on passenger conveyances--ships, trains, and airplanes--and on federal lands.
In the context of first nations, Health Canada works with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to assist first nations in dealing with the issue of safe drinking water. To be more specific, first nations have day-to-day responsibilities for the provision of drinking water, the operation of the treatment systems, and the testing that goes along with that. Health Canada provides advice and ensures that monitoring programs are in place on first nation reserves.
In terms of shared federal, provincial, and territorial management of drinking water, Health Canada is responsible for developing the risk assessment of chemical, microbiological, and radiological contaminants. These guidelines are used as the basis for standards and regulations in all the provinces and territories. In other words, these become enforceable standards in all jurisdictions across Canada and provide a common benchmark for safe drinking water.
I would like to give a quick overview in terms of how effective this approach is. I would suggest that since the Walkerton and North Battleford crises in 2000 and 2001 respectively, both the quality and the management of drinking water have improved substantially. This improvement includes the adoption of a multi-barrier approach, which essentially means that it's not sufficient just to have a good treatment system or a treatment plant. Instead, you really need to focus your attention on major issues, such as the protection of the source water of lakes, rivers, and groundwaters. This is key to protecting health. You must also ensure that you have operators and training in place.
The provinces and territories have all updated their legislation, regulations, and policies since 2000 and 2001. That said, we still face challenges in drinking water. In particular, I would point to water supplies in small communities. Those communities lack the capacity and the resources to provide the treatment and protection to which larger communities have access. Health Canada works with provinces, territories, industries, NGOs, and the academic community to try to move this issue forward so that we can address this challenge.
Health Canada also has responsibilities related to food. They are primarily in relation to the level of exposure to chemical contaminants in retail food, which is regulated under the Food and Drugs Act. However, in the context of the meeting here today, I think the issue is more in terms of country foods. Health Canada conducts risk assessments of country foods and provides advice in terms of health protection to provinces so that they are able to issue advisories specifically in relation to the consumption of fish and other food taken from the wild.
Health Canada also has responsibilities related to environmental contaminants. Cynthia Wright has already gone into the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and the chemicals management plan, which assesses and manages chemicals considered at risk and looks at industrial sectors, so I won't add anything to that area.
Finally, Health Canada has a role in environmental assessments and in identifying the potential health risks associated with development projects.
Now, if I can turn my attention to the Athabascan region and the potential sources of health risk, I'll give a brief overview of that.
Certainly there are contaminants of concern. These are mostly in the source waters and these derive from natural sources, such as the bitumen that leaks into the rivers and lakes, and also arsenic and mercury that come from natural sources. But the Athabascan region has had a history of development that includes a uranium mine that I understand is no longer in operation. There are pulp and paper mills, the agricultural sector, and of course, the petroleum industry, the oil sands. All of these factors contribute to the overall quality of the source water, which is a primary concern.
Accordingly, when we're engaged in environmental assessments, our advice is to focus on source water quality monitoring and protection, the prevention of leaks and spills; and if there are leaks or accidental spills, it's important to notify downstream treatment operators and citizens of a release so they can take action to prevent any health risk. Having said that, there are issues with source water quality. The quality of drinking water is good in all the communities downstream of the oil sands.
I'll move now to country food. Yes, there have been issues with country food. There has been an advisory issued by Alberta since 1990 that relates to the consumption of walleye, and it's related to mercury contamination.
I'm sure the committee is aware of Dr. John O'Connor's concern--and the community of Fort Chipewyan has raised concerns over the years--about the frequency of cancers occurring in the community, rare cancers such as bile duct cancers and colon cancers. There was a preliminary and fairly limited study presented in 2006 that indicated that there were no significant increases in the cancer rate.
Subsequent to that, a more rigorous and complete study was conducted by the Alberta Cancer Board, and they concluded that the observed rates of cancer, the rare cancers, the bile duct cancers, were within the norm, not outside the expected range of these cancers. They also did indicate that the overall cancer rate was slightly higher than expected. The conclusions they reached or the explanations they linked to that finding were that this could be due to a simple matter of chance because of the very small sample size, it could be related to increased detection because of the more rigorous examination of the charts and medical history of the community, and it could also be related to a real health risk.
In conclusion, the study, at least so far, indicates that the rare cancers are probably within the expected range. There's indication that the overall cancer rates may be higher, and we would suggest that this needs further study.
The treated drinking water is safe; however, drinking directly from source water would not be advisable. In terms of the way forward, clearly, protecting source waters is key and preventing leaks and accidental spills is our priority. I think all of us do not want to see any added contamination of the system. We think it's very important that the province continues to monitor the source and the treated drinking water and that governments take regulatory action as required.
In terms of Health Canada, one of our priorities is to continue developing guidelines and to identify and assess and manage contaminants under the chemical management plan. We have a continuing role in providing advice and support in any further cancer studies, and certainly in terms of working with first nations communities to ensure safe drinking water and improvement of health status.
Thank you very much.