Research could help combat bad water

By Jeff Labine
Published: Aug. 3, 2016

New research being done by the Northern Ontario School of Medicine could possibly lead to improving water quality for First Nations communities that are affected by blue green algae.

The province announced on Tuesday that $1 million will given to fund a new research chair position and equipment for the development of remote sensing technology such as drones and satellites with the goal of better identifying and preventing waterborne microbes that can lead to health problems.

The project is in partnership with Discovery Air Fire Services and involves both aerial and on-the-ground research.

The project, which is being spread out over five years, will include gathering data during the warmer months and then lab work once the snow falls.

The research chair has yet to be determined.

Improving water quality is a big concern for many First Nations communities who live under boil advisories.

As of May 31, Health Canada stated there were 126 drinking water advisories in effect for 84 First Nations communities across Canada except for British Columbia. Shoal Lake No. 40 and Neskantaga, both in Northern Ontario, have had boil water advisories in place since the 1990s.

Greg Ross, a professor at NOSM and lead investigator on the project, said blue green algae or cyanobacteria is a big problem for some First Nations communities.

“Water quality issues are critical and we believe that we’re going to be able to provide data showing some of the specific problems where there are challenges that need to be addressed, and First Nations communities, I believe, will have the ability to do that as well,” he said.

“Blue green algae is a little bit unique as boil water advisories don’t help. Boiling water that is contaminated with blue green algae in fact can release the toxins from the cells, which isn’t necessarily good. It is part of a bigger picture and is a big problem. There are many communities in the North with challenges with blue green algae and we think we will be able to help reduce that.”

Thunder Bay-Superior North MPP Michael Gravelle said the work of NOSM has expanded its work to look at the health needs of those living in the North.

He said it is a constant battle to deal with algae in lakes and rivers, which is attributed to climate change. He highlighted the main challenge is monitoring the algae’s growth and then acting on it.

“Quickly identifying the algae in our waterways is going to improve the health for people in Northern Ontario,” he said.

“When one looks at Northern Ontario, when one looks at the work NOSM is doing across the North, tourism is a huge part of our economy. People are attracted to our lakes and our waterways and we need to do whatever we can to see that they are kept as clean as possible.”

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