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The province of British Columbia has some of the worst drinking water in Canada and some of the country's lowest standards governing quality, according to the most recent report.
There have been at least 29 confirmed waterborne disease outbreaks since 1980 caused by microorganisms such as Giardia, Cryptosporidium, toxoplasma and campylobacter, the provincial health officer reported.
"Many of the outbreaks were the result of water-system failures or the absence of adequate treatment," warned the report, published in 2000. "Tens of thousands of British Columbians have been affected during these known outbreaks."
The report stated that "for a number of years, B.C. has had the highest rate of enteric (intestinal) illness of all the provinces in Canada."
Deputy provincial health officer Dr. Shaun Peck said things have not improved much since that report. "There's still a lot to be done to improve drinking water," he said.
Dr. Peck said the provincial government is working on a "drinking water action plan" in which the 3,500 source-to-tap water systems across B.C. will be studied. But the results of that study, including fixes, will take five to 10 years to implement.
Meanwhile, a recent report by the Sierra Legal Defense Fund also found startlingly high incidences of water problems.
"On any day in B.C. there are roughly 300 boil-water alerts. In some of those systems the alert has been there for years. That's about 10 per cent of all water systems in B.C," said staff lawyer Randy Christensen.
"This number is much higher than most other provinces in Canada," said the health officer's report. It pointed out that most of the advisories were on water systems serving between 15 and 5,000 people, representing fewer than one per cent of the B.C. population.
Both reports pointed out that the water systems in Vancouver and Victoria are of good quality and will improve as new systems are put in place.
A new $500-million water filtration plant is being built in North Vancouver District that will use ultraviolet light to disinfect drinking water. A $40-million ozone-based water treatment plant opened in Coquitlam last year.
It's the smaller, older systems run by people with little training that are at risk.
The health minister's report said that "on average, 76 critical hazards are found each year during inspections conducted by environmental health officers."
But only one-quarter of water systems receive routine inspection each year, the report said.
Christensen said much of B.C.'s water systems operate in difficult, steep terrain influenced by logging, mining and development. Yet B.C. has some of the weakest standards to protect the systems, he said.
"There isn't much in place in B.C. in terms of watershed protection. That's a big issue, because we have steep geography and lots of land uses such as logging and mining that can be potentially threatening," he said.
"Given its inherent risks, B.C. has some of the weakest legislation. It should have some of the strongest legislation."
Christensen also pointed out that B.C. waterborne disease rates are about twice as high as those in neighboring Washington state, which imposes much more stringent regulations.
He said the U.S., Quebec and Ontario have roughly 80 standards governing chemical and other contaminates while B.C. has only three.
Dr. Peck says it's "consumer beware" where B.C.'s drinking water is concerned.
"We mustn't take it for granted. Just because the water tastes good coming out of the tap doesn't mean you can't get sick from it," Dr. Peck said.