A University of Saskatchewan professor who worked at Iqaluit says any amount of fuel in drinking water is unsafe, but drinking it is not dangerous in the short term.
Iqaluit residents were told on Tuesday not to drink city tap water after the smell of fuel was detected at a water treatment plant, but it is still unknown whether the water contained fuel.
Steven Siciliano, a microbiologist and toxicologist who has researched the answer, says the city did the right thing by telling its residents as soon as they found the smell.
A local state of emergency was declared for the city of nearly 8,000 people after residents complained on social media about the smell of fuel in their tap water for more than a week.
Siciliano says Iqaluit’s routine water testing looks for bacteria, not hydrocarbons, and notes that the city is not to be blamed for the situation.
Water samples from Iqaluit have been sent to a laboratory in southern Canada for testing and are expected to return in the coming days.
Siciliano says the human nose is “incredibly sensitive” to hydrocarbons, which means people can smell it even when it’s in very small amounts.
He says prolonged exposure to compounds found in gasoline can be “very risky,” but drinking it for a week probably won’t do much harm.
“It’s not like if you have one cup of water, you’re going to be poisoned for the rest of your life,” says Siciliano.
Despite this, he says the situation is urgent and a solution needs to be found at the earliest.
“If they drank it before they got fuel, I don’t think they have any serious cause for concern. Go ahead, is that okay? Not at all,” he says.
As a comparison, he says that smoking one or two cigarettes a day will not give a person cancer, but smoking a pack a day is likely.
“It’s the same with water. Drink it daily for a week? Not going to give you cancer,” he says.
“We don’t know how much fuel there is. They might not be fuel there – that’s good news.”