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Why living in Shannon, Quebec, is bad for your health

Water quality was once a source of pride for a town in the shadow of an arms factory. Now, 500 cancers have been diagnosed

Jean Bernier slows his car to a stop on a quiet, tree-lined street. “They call this the ‘red zone’,” he says, gesturing towards a row of tidy bungalows. “Nearly everybody here had cancer. You could go from house to house and probably find someone in each.”

Mr Bernier, 60, lives in Shannon, Quebec, a town that has been plagued by abnormally high rates of certain cancers. Medical professionals have pointed the finger at the town’s Valcartier military base, where trichloroethylene (TCE) – a solvent which strips grease from metal – was used by a munitions manufacturer for more than 40 years.

Although it was confirmed in 1997 that the solvent had seeped into the town’s water supply, residents say repeated calls for a full investigation have fallen on deaf ears. However, after years of waiting, they may soon get some answers.

In May, Quebec public health officials set up an international committee of experts to examine more than 500 cases of people diagnosed with cancer in the area. Rene Bouchard, a spokesman for the public health agency, says the researchers are collecting evidence and plan to meet again this autumn.

Mr Bernier,  pictured, a member of a citizens committee fighting for compensation, hopes the study will end a battle that has dragged on for more than a decade.

Claude Juneau, another member of the citizens’ committee and a Shannon family doctor, began examining the issue himself in 2000. He compiled a list of people in the town who had been diagnosed with cancer.

In one home, he found three people, unrelated by blood, all suffering from colon cancer. In all, he found 20 brain-cancer cases in Shannon, a town of just over 5,000. “That’s just not normal,” says Dr Juneau, now 80 and retired, explaining that the expected rate for such cancers is about one in 20,000.

Looking back, Dr Juneau says there were warning signs when he was treating families who lived near or on the army base. “People would take showers and their skin would get all red, or when they’d drink water they would have digestive problems,” he says.

In 2003, a group of residents launched a class-action lawsuit against the Canadian  government and the private companies involved. More than 3,000 people – including current and former residents – are now part of the suit. It involves 500 cancer cases and 200 deaths.

When the class action had its first court hearings in 2011, the government argued there was no evidence that TCE in the water supply was behind the residents’ cancers.

A Quebec judge ruled last year that the solvent had contaminated the water, but found no link between the contamination and the cancer cases. The judge ordered that only those who lived in the most affected area –  the “red zone” – be compensated. About 300 people would receive C$15,000 (£9,345) each for the inconvenience caused by disruption to their water supply. Residents, who were seeking $200m, have appealed.

The case is scheduled to be heard by the Quebec Court of Appeal next year. In the meantime, the Department of National Defence is setting up a treatment system to intercept TCE flowing from the base into Shannon. It is expected to be in place by 2015.

Caroline Duplain’s family was one of the few awarded compensation, but she was “shocked” when she learned of the ruling and the size of the award. Her father died of multiple brain tumours in 2001.

“My father was in good shape,” she says. “He was running every day. He didn’t drink. He didn’t smoke.”

Ms Duplain says many of her high-school friends have had cancer, and she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago. “I haven’t had water from the tap since,” she says.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, Shannon was once sought out for its pristine water supply, according to the town’s long-time mayor, Clive Kiley. “Before the problem with the contamination, everybody in Shannon had their own well,” Mr Kiley recalls.

“We always thought it was water of great quality. We had an awful lot of people who had friends [from Quebec City] who used to come out here and go home with bottled water.”

Mr Kiley became mayor in 1997 and steered the town through the controversy that began in 2000, when water being piped into 161 houses was first found to be contaminated.

Affected families were given bottled water to drink, and instructed not to bathe for too long and leave the window open when showering, he said.Later, the problem was determined to be far more widespread.

Eventually, the federal government gave the town $37m for an aqueduct system that now serves 70 per cent of the homes in Shannon. The rest get water from their own wells, which are tested annually.

Despite the controversy, many residents have chosen to stay. In fact, the town’s population has climbed 33 per cent over the past five years.

Once a farming community, Shannon is now a fast-growing suburb of Quebec City, with new developments popping up along the picturesque Jacques-Cartier River.

Many military veterans of the war in Afghanistan, who work at the adjacent military base, have used their bonuses to buy homes in new developments carved out of the forest.

Shannon’s water supply, however, remains a touchy subject.

Pamphlets on display at the town hall explain the new water supply and testing measures in place to guarantee water of “excellent quality”.

“Residents have to be assured a lot more than some other places,” Mr Kiley says.

Mr Bernier, who grew up on the military base, still refuses to swim in the river. He says he has considered moving but is too attached to his friends, his home and the town itself. And his children also want to stay. “It’s where you build your life,” says Mr Bernier, a retired teacher and a member of the volunteer fire department.

As a child, he remembers playing in lagoons on government land, not far from where he lives today. “They were gooey and sticky, but we were just kids,” he says. “You don’t think about that, that it could be a contamination problem.”

For years, Mr Bernier has lived in the shadow of an illness he believes is linked to the water contaminations. His brother-in-law, who lived one street over, died of colon cancer a few years ago. His sister, who still lives in that home with their two children, has had breast cancer twice.

“We’ve been asking for that study since the start,” he says. “It’s not too late. It has to be done. But it should have been done a long time ago.”

A spokesman for the Canadian government, said she could not comment on the case in Shannon because it was before the courts.