IQALUIT, NUNAVUT – A professor at the University of Saskatchewan who worked at Iqaluit, says any amount of fuel in drinking water is unsafe, but it is not necessary to drink it in the short term.

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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.

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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.

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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 found that there was fuel before drinking it, I don’t think they have serious cause for concern. Going forward, is that okay? Absolutely not,” 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 every day for a week? You’re not going to get cancer,” he says.

“We don’t know how much fuel is in there. They may not have fuel in there — that’s good news.”

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published on October 14, 2021.

This story was produced with financial support from Facebook and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.