Last week’s flip-flop on signage warning about arsenic contamination in area lakes highlights a communications fiasco that began with the release of 30-year-old data on Kam Lake last spring.
Dr. Andre Corriveau, the NWT’s chief public health offer, was forced to endure a very public course correction by his minister Glen Abernethy after the good doctor said erecting signs would be “expensive” and would likely be “defaced or vandalized” or may “just fall over in time.”
According to the minister, in fact, signs have been in the works since the spring. The territorial government will pay for them and the city will post them in four key areas: Kam Lake, Grace Lake, Frame Lake and Jackfish Lake – all bodies of water people may be tempted to swim or fish in if they didn’t know any better.
Presumably they will be as sturdily built and as reasonably priced as the handful of signs already dotting the McMahon Frame Lake Trail or Baker Creek informing passerby of the area’s fauna and geology.
City councillor Niels Konge told Yellowknifer he doesn’t think the lakes need signs “because at some point people need to take the initiative to educate themselves and take care of their own well-being.”
This is a marvelously libertarian point of view but doesn’t help a person new to town or the tourist from Korea who would never consider reading health advisories on the Department of Heath and Social Services’ website before taking a stroll down by the lake.
A few strategically placed signs with clear warning labels is the most responsible way to inform members of the public who may not be aware there is a problem.
The signage flip-flop was an unfortunate misstep in a week where residents were finally given solid information on a number of lakes within city limits, particularly Kam Lake – the subject of a health advisory in April based on information from 1989 that stated arsenic levels in the lake were more than 50 times higher than the level considered safe for drinking water.
New testing shows the figure has since been halved to 24 times higher than the Canadian guidelines for safe drinking water. It’s still an alarming number but the discrepancy suggests the health department would have been better off giving itself a few more months while doing its homework before firing off a health advisory based on out-of-date information.
The department has been playing catch up ever since, and in the process has confused and greatly alarmed the public without being able to answer questions – questions concerning bodies of water many people have been living next to and enjoying all their lives.
There is much more to learn about the arsenic in city lakes. Hopefully, the health department will learn how to better communicate the new information that it learns.