July 18, 2024

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Public Health Ontario proposes phasing out free water testing of private wells

4 min read

Public Health Ontario (PHO) is planning to phase out free provincial testing for private drinking water.

The government agency originally proposed a joint “modernization plan” in conjunction with the provincial Ministry of Health (MHO) in 2017 to reduce public health labs’ services. They proposed shuttering six out of 11 provincial health labs and scale down the types of tests publicly offered, including gradually phasing out private well water testing.  

The most recent mention of the plan was in the Ontario auditor general’s annual report on public health from December 2023. The report recommended that the PHO and MHO move to implement a similar modernization plan within the next year. 

For Ontarians, including cottagers, who rely on private wells as their water sources, this could mean the end of free testing for private well water.

“Once you put a price tag on water testing, you put a barrier in place,” says Matt Pearson, the chair of the Ausable Bayfield Maitland Valley source protection region committee.

The committee—which is one of 19 in the province—is tasked with protecting municipal drinking water sources, including groundwater sources such as private wells. About half of the population in the Ausable Bayfield Mayfield Valley region relies on private wells.

In early March, Pearson wrote a letter to Lisa Thompson, Ontario’s minister of agriculture, food, and rural affairs,  on behalf of the committee. In it, he recommended that the province not proceed with plans to eliminate water testing.

“Well owners understand the importance of testing their well water,” he wrote. “It is the inconvenience of doing so that is the barrier.”

The PHO tests for coliforms—bacteria that are often found in animal waste and sewage—as well as E. coli. Currently, the PHO provides free test kits for Ontarians to test their well water themselves, They can then drop off their sample at their local public health unit.

Municipal councils across the province, such as the Minto town council, have passed resolutions in support of the committee’s recommendations.

Pearson says that privatizing water testing will discourage people from getting their water tested. 

Plus, a lack of free testing, alongside the consolidation of several Ontario labs, could make access to water testing even more difficult, says Heather Murphy, associate professor at the University of Guelph who focuses on water quality and public health. Murphy points to those who may be unaware that they should be testing their water—such as newcomers to Canada or ex-city-dwellers who are used to municipal water being tested by the city—as well as individuals who may not be able to afford private testing.

This proposal comes nearly 24 years after the water crisis in Walkerton, Ont., where the municipal water was contaminated with E. coli. Over the course of two weeks, nearly half of the community’s 5,000 population was infected with the bacteria and seven people died. 

Following a public inquiry into the incident, Dennis O’Connor, at the time an Ontario Court of Appeal judge, found that the privatization of drinking water testing “connected directly” to the outbreak. 

The potential for a higher risk of disease from untested private well water is unknown, says Murphy. But she believes the “cost of intervention” outweighs the prospect of a public health crisis. 

“It seems like we’re going backwards in terms of providing resources to homeowners,” she says, adding that the provincial government should be doing more—not less—to make public water testing available and accessible.

In a statement to Cottage Life, the provincial Ministry of Health said that they have “not made any decisions” about changes to private well water testing. At a lower level, municipal public health units are aware of the proposal. 

“We have had communication directly with Public Health Ontario emphasizing that, if there is any consideration of implementing the Auditor General’s recommendations, community and public health unit engagement are critical,” says Julie Bromley, the manager of environmental health for Peterborough Public Health.

Peterborough is one of six labs at risk of being shut down by the proposed plan.

For now, Ontarians are still able to get their private well water tested by the province.

“Testing your water is the best thing you can do if you own a well,” says Pearson. “Don’t take it for granted that it’s always safe.”

For more information about private well water testing in Ontario, visit your local public health unit’s website or Public Health Ontario.

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