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


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

Filed under: Travel — Tamara Neely @ 22:33
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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