Opinion

YOUR WATER: Chemistry and infant mortality rates

By Heather Gingerich

Collapsed or flooded tunnels, Black Lung, Vitamin D deficiency and exposure to toxic gases like carbon monoxide, methane and carbon dioxide. Although Rita MacNeil and the Men of the Deeps almost manage to make coal mining sound like a romantic affair, except for the presence of song birds on the job site, working as a coal miner was no picnic.

Due to their extreme environmental sensitivity relative to adult humans, canaries were used in coal mines as an early warning system of a build-up of lethal gases. So when the chirpy, yellow bird in your area stopped singing or was lying belly-up on the bottom of its cage, it was time for the miners to fly.

Likewise, aquatic species like turtles are often used as indicators of poor water quality. Because they are relatively high up on the food chain, environmental scientists get worried when the turtle populations start to crash. Today, seven out of eight native turtle species are on the protected list.

With the watered-down chemical cocktail in our water supplies becoming increasingly complex and drinking water standards dangerously out of date, it’s time to ask some hard questions about the effects of poor drinking water quality on little humans.

Infant mortality rates are a measure of number of deaths of full-term babies less than 12 months old per 1,000 live births, and are reported according to Health Unit by Statistics Canada in the Community Health Profiles that are available to the public on-line.

Because baby girls tend to be feather-weights as compared to baby boys, Female Infant Mortality rates are the “canaries’ canary” and might be a useful indicator of poor drinking water chemistry because the same concentration of a contaminant in water results in a higher dose per kilogram body weight than for heavier boy babies. The provincial and national average for 2011 was 4.6 per 1,000 live births per year.

Statistics Canada’s Peer Group classification system allows researchers to compare “apples to apples” in terms of Health Units by controlling for 24 other factors affecting health like family income, access to healthcare services and female education level.

By this measure, health units like Oxford County (Peer Group A – 6.3 per 1,000) that are largely or entirely dependent on groundwater resources have the highest rates of Female Infant Mortality in Ontario.

One thing that the highest ranking of 32 Health Units in Peer Groups A-D all share is a water chemistry profile that features very “hard”, alkaline water with relatively high fluoride, sodium, sulfur and iron levels with a high potential for additional chemical contamination from oil and gas deposits or industrial activity.

The problem is that current Ontario Drinking Water Standards are based on recommendations from Health Canada which doesn’t set them to be protective of formula-fed infants because “they represent too small a proportion of the general population”.

Policy positions like that should land our public health protection agencies on the Naughty List with a lump of coal in their stockings at Christmas time.


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