Fresh Sheets

A portfolio of writing by Tamara Neely.

Chemicals in water may harm humans, say researchers October 28, 2010

The amount of pesticides, hormones and other chemicals in Alberta’s rivers are causing scientists to fear not only for fish populations, but also for the future of human health.

University of Calgary researcher Hamid Habibi says chemicals in Alberta's waterways are affecting fish reproduction and he is concerned humans could be affected in the same way. photo by Tamara Neely

Studies conducted on rivers in the MD of Foothills and across southern Alberta show chemical runoff from residential lawns, agriculture operations and cattle feedlots as well as chemicals that pass through municipal water treatment plants are causing reproductive problems in fish.

Researchers at the Universities of Calgary and Lethbridge are conducting studies to look at the chemical impacts on Alberta waterways. “There is clear evidence that there are chemical pollutants leaching into the water system and they adversely affect animal health and they could potentially affect human health,” said Hamid Habibi, a professor in the U of C department of Biological Sciences.

Habibi has been sampling water from various rivers in Alberta, including from the Bow River at the Policeman’s Flats area near Heritage Pointe northeast of Okotoks.

Habibi said the problem is many chemicals mimic a hormone naturally occurring in humans and animals and are

able to enter the body and effect functions.

According to his studies, pesticide, antibiotics, hormones, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals in the rivers affect fish’s systems because they act like estrogen.

Since estrogen governs various physical functions the chemicals are able to be active in the animal and the high levels of estrogen are causing alarming problems.

The effects on fish he has documented are low sperm count, the feminization of fish, meaning an abnormally high amount of female fish offspring and fetuses developing abnormal sex organs, such as small penises and testes.

“These chemicals can interfere with normal hormone activity either by mimicking hormones and over-stimulating them or by blocking them,” said Habibi.

Habibi’s research has focused on fish, but his concern is humans could also experience the same problems.

“We do see this in animals, but it has to be studied in humans,” said Habibi. “A lot of factors that affect sexual development in animals are the same in humans. It’s plausible that this could happen in humans.

“If a human fetus is exposed to too much estrogen it causes abnormality.”

Runoff from agriculture industry

Habibi’s research has shown that pesticides, antibiotics and other drugs are downstream from agricultural

operations despite Provincial regulations in place to prevent runoff.

“Lots of pharmaceuticals end up in the environment because feedlots’ cattle are given antibiotics and other drugs,” said Habibi. “The cattle’s urine and feces ends up in the water, rain washes things into the river.”

Rainwater and irrigation also washes pesticides and herbicides from cropland into the river.

“We have definitive evidence showing if you go to riverbanks along farms these chemicals are present,” said Habibi. “Once into the river they cause harmful effects on animal populations and if it is a drinking water source for another community it could potentially cause a problem (for humans). The big problem is that water treatment plants are not capable of removing them.”

Habibi said Provincial guidelines for preventing runoff need to be tightened, but more research needs to be done to provide direction.

Karen Yakimishyn, a livestock environmental engineer for Alberta Agriculture, said there are no numbers on how little or how much runoff may be entering waterways from feedlots in the province, but the regulations are in place to ensure the agricultural industry is sustainable.

 “It’s about ensuring our industry is just. One of the reasons for doing that is we have to be environmentally   sound, because if not, we wouldn’t have an industry,” said Yakimishyn.

Some of the restrictions cover how manure is stored, methods of catching runoff, for example catch basins, and

the amount of fresh water applied to the feedlot property, which is intended to restrict the amount of nutrients from manure which could possibly run off.

“Feedlots have to have runoff control systems,” said Yakimishyn. “We want to protect surface water bodies and


One method of dealing with the manure produced at feedlots is to apply it to crops, but Monica Langfield, the

general manager of farming and natural resources for Western Feedlots, said it is unlikely manure applied to

fields is washed into waterways.

“On our land we follow regulations strictly. I don’t believe any nutrients end up in the waterways. The regulations are there for a reason and that’s why we follow them,” said Langfield.

Once per year Western Feedlots conducts tests on their catch basins and to ensure manure is not leeching

into ponds or the water wells of surrounding neighbours.

“We water test on an annual basis,” said Langfield. “We test for human consumption and cattle consumption (standards) – so all kinds of E. coli, bacteria and that kind of thing.”

They don’t test for antibiotics, however, Langfield said little manure goes into the catch basin.

“We have had an environmental impact strategy in place since 1993. The goal is to contain all runoff from Western Feedlots,” said Langfield.


Chemicals passing through sewage treatment plants

Habibi determined that the greatest change that needs to happen is municipalities need to change their water and

sewage treatment plants.

Many chemicals are passing through the sewage treatment processes and affecting fish, he said.

He is involved with a new research project that has been awarded more than $10 million by the federal government to look at ways of improving water treatment plants.

Habibi said four years ago the Province agreed to match the grant, but the research has not been able to proceed because they have not been awarded the funding.

The project is important, he said, because studies have shown as municipalities flush their treated effluent back into the into the water system antibiotics, female hormones and more pharmaceuticals are being released with it.

He explained that pharmaceuticals ingested by humans pass through urine into the sewage system and are not removed before entering the waterways.

“The body is not able to completely remove it and degrade it, a good example is birth control pills — the estrogen ends up in urine. It’s not broken down,” said Habibi.

“One of the most important steps is to improve treatment plants so they can remove these contaminants.”

Habibi is concerned about the effects on the body when  multiple chemicals are in the water. The problem is not just pesticide, or antibiotics it’s all the other chemicals they are finding in the water.

“We’re dealing with thousands of chemicals (from a variety of industries and sources). This is the tip of an

iceberg and we’ve started looking at this seriously,” said Habibi.

Ed Spohr, site manager for the water and sewage treatment plants for Okotoks, confirmed that estrogen is not removed during treatment processing of sewage.

“There would have to be a chemical treatment process — it couldn’t be filtered out. Most places don’t do that,” said Spohr.

Habibi’s research is showing pesticides also act like estrogen.

The Town of Okotoks has been working to limit the amount of pesticides that enter the rivers through controlling

the amount they spray on Town land and by changing the requirements for storm sewers.

“We’re trying to reduce our use of insecticides and fertilizers to minimize the loading of these chemicals into the river,” said Dave Robertson, operations manager for the Town.

“Many of them are hazardous to health — humans’ and animals’ — if they’re not managed properly. They run

off your property into the storm sewer and eventually into the river and ecosystem where the fish pick it up — it’s a whole chain of events.”

Robertson said in an effort to reduce the Town’s chemical use they no longer spray herbicide on dandelions and each year they receive calls from residents complaining about dandelion blooms.

“We try to manage (dandelions) by trimming more frequently — that’s part of the plan to reduce chemical use,”

said Robertson. “With chemicals such as Killex and 2,4-D you have to be aware — where do you think it’s going to go?”

Robertson said if there is heavy rainfall after residents spray chemicals on their lawns, those chemicals will be washed into the storm water system.

Forty per cent of the neighbourhoods have the old style of storm water drainage which feeds directly into the


The other 60 per cent of neighbourhoods have been developed with the new system, which collects storm water in a pond before flowing into the river.

Lars Brinkmann, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge, said homeowners need to realize while scientists

are trying to define all the harmful effects of pesticides and other chemicals, homeowners are spraying a variety

of chemicals that are washed into the storm water drainage.

“People don’t realize where the water running into their street sewer goes. Out of sight, out of mind. They think it’s gone,” said Brinkmann. “These issues are being discussed by scientists, but when you talk to homeowners they say, ‘My neighbour is doing it, too. Why shouldn’t I do it?’”

Brinkmann said they have identified specific effects of specific chemicals on fish and plant life, but the question of how harmful all the chemicals mixing like a soup in the river is still unknown.

When compounded chemicals are ingested by fish or humans, for example, the effect could be much worse than scientists currently know and more research needs to be done.

Published in the Okotoks Western Wheel August 19, 2009


A source of conflict: Book details First Nations’ struggle with tainted water

Filed under: First Nations — Tamara Neely @ 00:12
Tags: , , , ,

One out of every six First Nations people living on reserves can’t drink the tap water.

Author: Merrell-Ann S. Phare

It is too polluted, according to the author of a new book about indigenous people’s water rights in Canada.

 If one out of every six Canadians in our cities and towns had to buy bottled water because the tap water was brown and stunk, there would be outrage. However, as of June, the Canadian government reported 110 First Nations communities in Canada are under a “drinking water advisory” and many have been for years.

In Denying the Source: The Crisis of First Nations Water Rights, author Merrell-Ann S. Phare explores the problems First Nations face with contaminated drinking water, and the web of reasons why change isn’t happening.

Phare lays out the complex problems in an invitingly small book. Denying the Source is only the size of a daytimer, so wading into the issue isn’t too intimidating. She explains, in simple terms, that a big part of the reason that some First Nations communities have had to buy bottled water for 10 years is that there is no clear jurisdiction over the water.

 Provinces govern water allocation off reserves and have no jurisdiction on reserves, she explains. Treaties don’t specifically include water rights, but they also don’t specifically exclude them either.

As well, First Nations can’t look to the federal government for clarity. First, Ottawa does not govern water-use rights. Second, the Canadian government is not an advocate of water being a basic human right. In 2008, Canada successfully argued against the United Nations Human Rights Council’s attempt to declare it as such.

Phare points to the Supreme Court of Canada as a source of hope, however. The court has a track record of making decisions in support of First Nations access to potable water as well as access to water for agricultural and industrial needs.

 At the heart of the issue is the question of First Nations’ right to water; what legal grounds to use as leverage, balancing limited water with the rest of Canada’s needs, and the importance of maintaining enough water in rivers and lakes to support ecosystems.

 Phare points out that the Canadian approach to water as a commodity adds to the problems. First Nations fundamental law is stewardship for the Earth and water, so Canadian laws and First Nations laws are at odds. It will take effort on both sides to come to an agreement, but it can be done, according to Phare.

Both government agencies and First Nations agencies recognize there is a need to change the current system.

  Two years ago the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) chose six reserves in unique geographical situations and sampled the water. The AFN found that the water in every one of those reserves was either tainted with uranium, had unacceptable levels of disease-causing bacteria or came out of the tap brown and stinking. In addition, all six reserves showed “disturbingly high rates of cancer and evidence of fish deformities.”

 Phare’s book also includes examples of court decisions awarding First Nations access to ample clean water. So instead of seeing the issue as a quagmire without hope, Phare views it as a problem that can be solved, but one that requires empathy from fellow Canadians.

Published in Fast Forward Weekly on February 25, 2010


Community partnership helps prevent violence

Filed under: First Nations — Tamara Neely @ 00:01
Tags: , , ,
RCMP constable Donald Vanderrick, left, chats with Eden Valley resident Keith Lefthand. Vanderrick is stationed at the reserve to prevent crime through innovative programs such as organizing sports events.

RCMP constable Donald Vanderrick, left, chats with Eden Valley resident Keith Lefthand. Vanderrick is stationed at the reserve to prevent crime through innovative programs such as organizing sports events.

Two RCMP officers stationed in Eden Valley are trying to change the community’s perception of police.

Constables Donald Vanderrick and Jason Barber have been organizing sport events, such as a recent volleyball tournament, attending social gatherings and acting as mentors in addition to their traditional legal roles.The concept is that the RCMP officers can help prevent crime by connecting with the community. It’s an initiative that began five years ago, called the Community Tripartite Agreement, signed between the band, federal and provincial governments.

“Our focus is on crime prevention, but a lot of the problems go deeper than that,” said Vanderrick. “They’re associated with poverty, with the system.”

The system can trap residents and fuel a sense of hopelessness, he said. For example, there are very few jobs on the reserve, so to apply for a job residents need a driver’s licence.

Most don’t have a licence, and many have fines stacked up for driving without one. Acquiring a valid driver’s licence means coming up with the money to pay off fines and pay for the test, which can be difficult when the residents don’t have a job.

The RCMP officers are trying to help the residents out of this cyclical trap.

Vanderrick is helping youth support worker Seth Leon refine a new driver’s education program. He has also been in communication with local motor vehicle licensing offices to address such obstacles.

Vanderrick is already seeing a difference he and Barber are making in the community.

“At one time we were considered the outsiders and only here to arrest people and take them away and now we’re part of the community,” said Vanderrick.

People will now approach them and report crimes, Vanderrick said, which is a vote of confidence in their ability to do something about the violence.

Vanderrick began operating in Eden Valley last August and Constable Barber started in June, taking over from two previous RCMP officers operating on the reserve.

“Anywhere there is interaction with people, we want to be there and have a positive presence, not just come in when a crime happens and leave after,” Vanderrick.

The officers’ projects are directed by the Community Consulting Group, which is comprised of residents.

Projects include developing a police cadet to address aboriginal gang presence on the reserve, the driver’s education program, teaching drug and alcohol awareness in the school and organizing activities such as the volleyball tournament.

Vanderrick has found that the problems in Eden Valley echo problems First Nations people are experiencing across the country, however, on other reserves people are hitching their future to education.

“The buffalo died out a long time ago and now there is the saying that now education is our buffalo,” said Vanderrick, who is a Cree from Saskatchewan. “But I’m finding people here don’t have the same belief in education. It’s like, ‘What do I need education for? I’m not going anywhere.’ That was shocking to me.”

Vanderrick said he has seen a sense of hopelessness on the reserve, for example, among some of the Chief Jacob Bearspaw Memorial School children.

When visiting with a Grade 5 class he asked the students what they’d like to be when they grew up. He was met with blank stares.

“Nobody knew what I was talking about,” said Vanderrick. “I said, ‘Would you like to be a firefighter? A doctor?’”

He said there is a general lack of confidence among the residents in their own ability to change their lives for the better. That lack of confidence ties into myriad problems from prescription drug and alcohol abuse, to violent behaviour, arson, unemployment – the type of problems that plague the community.

Vanderrick continued to meet with the students and act as a counselor, educator and role model.

“At the end of the school year I asked them again what they wanted to be and this time they said things like hunter, fisherman, lawyer,” said Vanderrick.

However, in the five years since the Community Tripartite Agreement was put in place and RCMP officers started to have a more visible presence in community life, the crime statistics have not changed.

Sergeant Jim Ross with the Turner Valley RCMP detachment maintains the statistics.

“The statistics do not show a significant change in the amount of calls for service,” he said. “Sometimes it takes awhile for change to occur and you may not see it in statistics, but I think positive changes are occurring.”

Eden Valley resident Keith Lefthand was a member of band council when the Community Tripartite Agreement was signed. He said neither his council nor subsequent councils held workshops to educate the community on why the RCMP officers are stationed in Eden Valley full time.

“A big percentage of the people don’t understand what’s in the Community Tripartite Agreement,” said Lefthand. “They just see that RCMP are on the reserve and they’re charging us for no driver’s licence, no insurance. Over the years, under the Indian Act, we’ve been allowed to drive on the reserve without a driver’s licence or insurance, but with the Community Tripartite Agreement, we have to have those with us.

“When I was on council I knew we’d have to deal with the Traffic Act issues, but the main focus was on the safety of the elders and disabled, that they’re safe at home. Protect them from people who are drunk or high.”

Lefthand said more effort from both the council and the RCMP is needed to get the crime rate down.

“If the crime rate is still there, then something is definitely wrong,” said Lefthand. “I don’t blame the RCMP and it’s not fair to blame our tribal leaders. There has to be a focus from both sides.”

Many people believe education is a tool to help youth create a better future, but “school” for many people, still carries the horrific memories of parents and grandparents in residential schools, Lefthand said.

“People are scared to send their kids to school because of what happened to them,” said Lefthand. “Today, a middle-aged person like myself, in their 40s, their moms and dads were in residential school and when you’re sitting around the table it still affects us – even this far down… Some readers will say, ‘They’re using that as an excuse.’ We hear that at times, but who are they? None of them have lived it. It’s like an abducted child.”

Lefthand has also seen parents struggle to instill hope in their children. Because they are struggling to survive, there is a lack of parental support.

“I see a lot of that,” said Lefthand. “Parents don’t have jobs to support their kids, that makes it tough. It’s not a blame, but it’s a reality that the residential school days hurt a lot of our people and the trust is gone.”

Published in the Okotoks Western Wheel on September 20, 2010


Attending a funeral with Ghana’s president October 26, 2010

Filed under: Travel — Tamara Neely @ 22:33
Tags: , , ,

I don’t know how the president of Ghana’s cohorts knew I didn’t know whose hand I was shaking. Maybe it was because I was not visibly uncomfortable and not appropriately scared.

A spectator ar the funeral of Chiana-Pio, a chief in Ghana. photo by Tamara Neely

I was in Ghana this spring for four weeks with my boyfriend visiting his family and friends.

One of his friends is a former member of parliament and the chair of the country’s opposition party for the upper east region.

Her name is the Honourable Mrs. Agnes Chigabatia Asangalisa and she was giving us a ride north to visit family.

Madame Agnes, as her admirers call her, reminds me of Tina Turner. She is beautiful with chiseled cheekbones, deep, sparkling eyes and a wild crop of red hair. The woman has a calm power to her, like a lioness watching over her pride.

Madame Agnes was heading north to a town called Chiana, where a funeral was being held for a chief who died four years ago.

The chief, whose name is Pe Rowland Adiali Ayagitam II, was called Chiana-Pio and his funeral was a grand affair, drawing in people from across the country.

Crowds became even more intense once word spread the president of Ghana would be attending.

In the morning of the funeral, Madame Agnes collected me from the hotel and took me under her wing. She told me to stick close to her and I was treated like a foreign dignitary.

Her driver navigated the black SUV through throngs of people all heading towards the site of the funeral that seemed to be set under the umbrella of enormous trees.

I had no idea where we were, or what the plan was. I didn’t know how long we’d be there, but I didn’t ask any questions because my experience in Ghana was that questions were cumbersome and everything would become clear soon enough and I was in good hands.

Many of the people attending the funeral were wearing white T-shirts with a photo of Chiana-Pio on the front. Others were dressed in Ghanaian-style clothing featuring the stripes of the north or brightly patterned floor-length dresses.

There were musicians and dancers travelling in packs, fighting against the flow of the crowds.

The musicians had drums and flutes and the dancers undulating and shaking in a relentless fervor. They danced right up to Madame Agnes, who pulled out a wad of bills and placed the notes on the dancers’ heads. They stuck to the sweat on their foreheads or fluttering to the ground to be picked up by the troupe.

I could hear women ululating as a frightening looking group passed through the masses. Men in the lead wore the curved horns of some large animal on their helmet and warrior-style outfits just like what I had seen in the national museum, except the men in the museum had snakes in their mouths and were cutting their own tongues with huge knives.

Madame Agnes continued walking through the crowd and there were so many people who wanted to greet her I end up slipping further and further behind.

That was a frightful feeling as I lost my grip on my protector.

I could see the top of her red head peering around and I desperately hoped she was looking for me. I raised my hand into the air so she could see me, a single white arm in a sea of black people.

Moments later a teenager appeared and said, “You have to stick by Madame Agnes. Stay right close to her,” and he pushed his way back through the crowd, towing me along until I was tightly sandwiched between them.

I followed in her wake as she climbed the stairs to a stage where dignitaries were sitting on plastic chairs in a U-shape.

I followed, just like I’ve been told, and she begins greeting each of the seated dignitaries, one by one. I do the same.

Madame Agnes greets them in Twi and Buli, two of many Ghanaian languages.

I learned some of those words, but I’m so nervous all I can say is, “Hello, nice to meet you. Hello, nice to meet you.”

I have no idea who they are, but some of them are friendly and return my greeting. In fact, it seemed as though they got a kick out me coming through and saying hello.

In one corner, however, I get an icy vibe as I shake hands, as if they were thinking, “Who the are you and what are you doing here?”

I can understand they’d feel like that, because I felt like an imposter. The only reason I was there was because Madame Agnes took a shine to me and I wanted to follow her instructions.

After shaking 36 important people’s hands all the way around the U-shape, a spot opened up for Madame Agnes to sit down and I look around for a place for me. Nothing.

Now I really feel foolish.

Madame Agnes is engaged in conversation, so I’m on my own to deal with the situation.

I bolted off the stage.

A line of police and military lined the stairs. They formed a barrier protecting the dignitaries. Past them is a large open area where no one is allowed to walk, then another line of police and military contain the crowd.

I spot some of Madame Agnes’ followers right behind the wall of police and I hope they would provide me with some sanctuary.

I squeeze through some officers on the stairs, feeling a gun swing as I pass. I walk through the open area and squeeze through the next barricade of military officers to stand beside the people I recognize.

I relax for a moment, because that seems like the right place to be — with the regular folk.

Again, the teenager finds me, grabs me and pushes us past the police, explaining to them I’m a friend of Madame Agnes and I’m supposed to be with the dignitaries.

The police object, telling the teenager he can’t pass, but he says he’s just going to drop me off and return.

Miraculously, they allow us to pass.

He tugs me across the open area, in front of everyone, and tucks me up onto the stairs beside the other civilians who must be more important than the masses, but not as important as the dignitaries.

I feel like a dog keeping an eye on her master, because from that spot I can see Madame Agnes and I just stay put.

It was actually an excellent vantage point.

Facing the crowd, I could see to my left the military band sitting with their trumpets and horns. To my right were the dignitaries. In front of me were the 200-foot trees providing shade from the intense heat. All around me from the ground to the tops of buildings were armed military watching over the proceedings.

It was a privilege to be there. I had the opportunity to learn what a man had done in his life to earn the respect of thousands of people and to see how this culture celebrates such a life.

When the ceremony began several speakers painted a vivid picture of Chiana-Pio’s life.

He reigned from 1950, when Ghana gained independence from the British, until 2006 when he died. He was the first literate chief and with the leaders of the time he developed the country’s constitution.

Chiana-Pio was a farmer, he was generous with his harvest, his seeds and his knowledge and his peace-keeping approach to leadership earned him respect from his countrymen.

The fourth speaker to be introduced was the president of Ghana, John Atta Mills.
As he stood up I realized he was one of the dignitaries whose hand I had shaken.

He was in the corner where I got the less than hospitable welcome and now it was clear why. His cohorts knew I didn’t understand I had the privilege of shaking the president of Ghana’s hand.

Published in the Okotoks Western Wheel on August 18, 2010