Health officials in Ontario have reported 741 cases of a potentially fatal “decontamination oil” gas, one more than the previous week, with three deaths and eight serious injuries in addition to one fatality.
The northwestern Ontario town of Wawa began telling residents to cut off contaminated water after more than 40 people were sickened in mid-September. On Oct. 17, a crew working on a water main broke, releasing a 2.5 billion-gallon mix of solvents into the water supply. Wawa is 80 miles north of Ontario City, and this is the second time in two weeks that the municipality has declared a water-use emergency.
Several days after the underground leak, a second cyanide gas released into the Wawa water was detected. Health officials said Wawa residents should remain on bottled water while they work to clean out the chemical reaction that activated the refrigeration system with SO4 in oil on several machines, generating the highly toxic gas.
“The cyanide gas has mixed up inside the chemicals and leaked out a little bit of cyanide into a water filtration system,” Dr. Anne McLellan, the Ontario chief medical officer of health, told reporters in Ottawa on Friday.
“The potential cyanide toxicity is widespread and severe,” McLellan said. “People who come into contact with it, will suffer from nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, fatigue and a heightened feeling of being sick.”
Emergency warnings are now going out to local media about the cyanide gas, as officials begin to clean up the underground mine contamination that is contaminating Wawa’s water supply.
However, McLellan said this situation is worse than what happened to residents in Northern Alberta in 2013 when Husky Energy released a gas discharge into the river system that caught fire, prompting more than 1,200 evacuations. “We are dealing with a similar toxic gas, so the people are feeling a little bit more of a sense of the same awful, terrible thing that happened three years ago in Alberta,” McLellan said, according to Canadian news network CBC.
Environment Canada assessed the levels of cyanide and perchlorate in Wawa on Thursday, which is no longer toxic but may cause dehydration. For residents who need filtered water, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change is offering the distribution of bottled water from the Mackenzie reservoir depot building in Kingston.
So far, there have been no confirmed reports of people getting sick from the cyanide gas. “Our advice is to wait for more information and to follow up with your doctor,” McLellan said.