Environmental monitoring in Fort McMurray

Air, ash, soil and water testing in the Fort McMurray region.

Preliminary results of the post-remedial soil sampling program and gardening tips for residents are posted.

In November 2016, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health issued the statement below, repealing all recommendations for re-entry and re-occupation of the area.

Message from the Chief Medical Officer of Health

Throughout the re-entry planning for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, my focus has remained on ensuring residents are protected from potential harm.

At each re-entry planning phase, the municipality has been diligent in identifying, decreasing, and managing public health risks.

Following the RMWB’s submission of Phase 1 Re-entry Plan for Abasand and Beacon Hill on August 24, 2016; Phase 2A Re-entry Plan for Waterways on October 20, 2016; and Phase 2B Re-entry to Abasand and Beacon Hill on November 1, 2016, and based on the current state of these areas, I am repealing all recommendations for re-entry and re-occupation.

Effective November 21, 2016, I am repealing all recommendations for re-entry and re-occupation. There will be no further restrictions on re-entry and re-occupation in relations to the areas identified in the above noted plans.

I would like to thank the municipality for working collaboratively to protect the health of residents throughout all re-entry phases.

While the focus on rebuilding after a disaster is often on buildings and other infrastructure, there is also a need to focus on individual and family health and well-being. Please keep your health top of mind and recognize that each person’s journey after a traumatic event is different. I continue to wish all residents of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo strength and good health as you continue to re-build your community together.

- Dr. Karen Grimsrud, Chief Medical Officer of Health

Read the complete Public Health Recommendations for Re-entry Planning in the Urban and Rural Areas of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (Nov 21, 2016) (0.1 MB)

Environmental testing results

The Government of Alberta, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) and the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA) have been testing and monitoring air, soil, ash and water in the region since May 2016.

New results will be posted on this page when available.

Soil quality

Post-remedial soil sampling program

After a wildfire, the top layers of soil may contain ash from burned forest and man-made materials. This ash may be a potential source of contamination in the soil. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) sampled soils in Fort McMurray and surrounding areas where remediation had occurred to remove and dispose of ash after the wildfire. The purpose of this sampling was to determine the success of these remedial programs. Post-remedial soil from Fort McMurray and surrounding areas was collected between February 10 and March 8, 2017. Three additional samples were taken in July 2017. In total, 249 soil samples were collected.

Soil parameters analyzed included:

  • Petroleum hydrocarbons (PHCs)
  • Inorganics and general chemistry (including pH)
  • Metals
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Dioxins and furans

Results were compared against Alberta Tier 1 and Tier 2 Soil and Groundwater Remediation Guidelines (Residential/Parkland) and Tier 2 Human Direct Soil Contact Guidelines. Different organisms (receptors) have different tolerances to specific chemical compounds. Alberta Tier 1 guidelines are protective of the most sensitive receptor. Tier 2 guidelines are specific to human health and allow for assessment of risk associated with soil exposures. Often, the most sensitive receptor is an ecological receptor like an aquatic organism or plant. Sometimes, the most sensitive receptor is a human being. If the level of a contamination does not exceed a Tier 1 guideline, all receptors are protected. If the level of a contamination does not exceed Tier 2 or other health based guidelines, human health is protected. Guideline exceedances do not guarantee negative environmental or health outcomes, but rather, are an indication of a potential risk. Exposure, meaning a person touches, eats or inhales a hazard, must occur for there to be a risk to human or environmental health.

Preliminary Conclusions

Soil data from remediated areas indicated the following:

  1. None of the soil samples showed an exceedance of human health guidelines, except at a single location near Anzac where a single sample, which was split in two before being tested, showed elevated levels of arsenic. When the sampling was repeated in the same location, the arsenic concentration in the second sample did not exceed the human health guideline. In July, 3 additional samples were taken in the same location, and none of them exceeded the human health guideline for arsenic.
  2. Elevated salinities indicate fair to poor soil quality in a few areas that may affect plant growth, but not human health.
  3. Limited hydrocarbon (non-PAH) contamination in some areas may be due to burned organic material but will not affect human health.
  4. Ecological – but not human health – guidelines for Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) were exceeded in 10 samples.
  5. No exceedances of human health guidelines were found for dioxins and furans in any post-remedial soil samples.

Limitations

The analytical data was interpreted before laboratories and Government of Alberta scientists could complete all standard quality assurance/quality control processes. This work will continue in the upcoming weeks and updated data and information will be provided on an ongoing basis.

Pre-remediation soil sampling program

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) sampled soils in burned areas of Abasand, Waterways, Beacon Hill to study how ash affected soil quality. For comparison, contaminant levels in soil from unburned neighborhoods were also analyzed. Between June 2 and June 19, 2016, the RMWB collected 62 soil samples, including some from area gardens, to assess their suitability to grow food.

Soil parameters analyzed included:

  • Petroleum hydrocarbons (PHCs)
  • Inorganics and general chemistry (including pH)
  • Metals
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Dioxins and furans

Results were compared against Alberta Tier 1 and Tier 2 Soil Guidelines (Residential/Parkland).

Soil data from burned and unburned areas indicated:

  1. No exceedances of human health guidelines (Tier 2) were found in any soil samples collected to date — from either burned or unburned areas.
  2. Elevated salinities indicated fair to poor soil quality that may affect plant growth, but not human health.
  3. Results from community gardens indicated that gardening is safe for residents in unburned areas.
  4. There was no indication of metal contamination in any community garden soil samples.
  5. There was no indication of (non-PAH) hydrocarbon contamination in any areas.
  6. Ecological - but not human health – guidelines for Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) were exceeded in 17 samples. Low-level concentrations exceeded guidelines in 12 samples from unburned areas and five samples from burned areas.

More information on soil sampling

Ash

Following the fire, ash samples were collected by Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) in a variety of neighborhoods in Fort McMurray, including the worst-burned neighbourhoods of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways. Other areas sampled included Wood Buffalo, Timberlea, Grayling Terrace, Saprae Creek, Draper, urban forest areas, Gregoire Lake Provincial Park, and Anzac.

AEP sampling was conducted between May 12 and May 15, 2016 to determine if ash and debris could be disposed of safely in landfills. Additional samples were collected by the RMWB between May 24 and May 26, and between June 2 and June 4, 2016. Results from all ash samples were screened to determine the potential risk to public health, worker health and the health of the environment. In total, 136 ash samples were collected.

Ash was analyzed for:

  • Petroleum hydrocarbons (PHCs)
  • Inorganics and general chemistry (including pH)
  • Metals
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Dioxins and furans
  • Asbestos (bulk) in ash
  • Asbestos (fibrous) in air

Results were compared against Alberta Tier 1 and Tier 2 Soil Guidelines (Residential/Parkland). Soil quality guidelines were used here for screening purposes only. It is acknowledged that soil quality guidelines are not directly applicable to ash.

An assessment of ash sample results indicated that:

  1. The ash had a high pH value. Thus, the ash was caustic and it could have caused skin and respiratory irritation and burns;
  2. Heavy metals like arsenic, hexavalent chromium, and lead were present in ash at concentrations above health-based soil screening values; and
  3. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins, and furans were detected in ash at concentrations above health-based soil screening values;
  4. Ash in Abasand, Beacon Hill, and Waterways showed levels of contaminants typical of fires that contain man-made items such as vehicle tires and home building materials;
  5. Ash seen in less affected neighbourhoods had a similar chemical composition to ash in parts of Fort McMurray more heavily damaged by the fire.

Gardening tips for residents in fire-affected areas

Wildfires can have an impact on soil quality. Results from soil sampling conducted by the Government of Alberta and Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo show that it is safe to grow and eat food from backyard or community gardens in the area. The results also showed poor soil quality in a few areas, which could affect plant growth.

Below are some steps people can take to improve the soil quality in their gardens:

  • Check to see if all ash and debris has been removed. Remove any large deposits of ash or debris using appropriate personal protective equipment such as gloves, long sleeve shirts and masks. A thin layer of ash (less than 0.2 centimetres) can be incorporated into the soil without causing any health or safety concerns by tilling to a depth of about 15 centimetres. If you are concerned about remaining ash or debris, you may wish to contact your insurance company to inquire about further remediation or clean-up activities.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables from your garden by running them under water before eating, even if the food will be peeled or cooked. This is generally a good practice that will help remove dirt and bacteria.
  • You can test the pH of your soil by getting a testing kit from a garden centre. You should take pH readings from multiple areas of the garden. Soil that is greater than pH 9 (alkaline) may have been affected by the wildfire. Products that will acidify the soil (lower the pH) can be purchased from garden centres and applied based on the manufacturer’s instructions. Organic compost can also increase soil acidity if applied regularly.
  • Wildfires can make soil repel water, which can contribute to soil erosion. You can test if your soil is water repellant by placing a drop of water on the surface of the soil. The water will bead and will not penetrate the soil if it is water repellant. You can break the water repellant layer of soil using a garden hoe or similar instrument. You can also add weed-free straw or weed-free straw fibre to the soil, or build a raised bed over top of the affected soil.
  • Wildfires can result in the loss of organic matter, soil nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur and potassium) and the death of soil microbial communities. You can add weed-free straw and compost to wildfire-affected soil to help replace organic matter, nutrients and beneficial organisms. You can also add fertilizer based on the manufacturer’s instructions and the type of plants being grown.

FireSmart yards

There are several things you can do with your yard and garden to help protect your home from a fire:

  • Choose fire-resistant plants for your yard. Characteristics of fire-resistant plants include moist, supple leaves, minimal dead vegetation, water-like sap with little odour and low amounts of sap or resin material.
  • Avoid having highly combustible materials such as bark or pine needle mulches and piled wood within 10 metres of your home.
  • Keep a 1.5 metre horizontal non-combustible surface around the outer walls of your home, such as gravel mulch or decorative crushed rock mulch.
  • Keep your lawn mowed to less than 10 centimetres.
  • More information on FireSmart homes and yards and a list of fire-resistant plants can be found here:

Asbestos

Air and bulk ash samples were collected and analyzed for asbestos content by both the Government of Alberta and the RMWB.

Air samples

Air sampling for asbestos was completed by RMWB from May 25-29 and June 6, 2016. Both personal and area air samples were collected for asbestos testing during ash sampling activities. Personal air samples were collected using collection devices placed directly on personnel during ash sample collection. Area air samples were collected in sample locations that were in vicinity of personnel performing ash sample collection.

Samples were collected in the following neighbourhoods:

  • Beacon Hill (2 samples)
  • Abasand (7 samples)
  • Waterways (2 samples)
  • Anzac (4 samples)

There was no detectable level of asbestos in any of the air samples analyzed.

Samples collected by AEP and RMWB through the previously mentioned bulk ash sampling programs were also analyzed for asbestos. All bulk ash samples results were below detection limits for asbestos (i.e., asbestos fibres were not identified in bulk ash in a measurable amount).

Testing of asbestos was done on a broad scale and does not represent potential risk from asbestos for individual homes. Homeowners with concerns about potential asbestos in their homes should address these concerns with their insurance providers and/or contractor; the testing of asbestos is up to the homeowner to arrange (e.g. through insurance and contractor) for their own site. This includes concerns about potential cross-contamination from other sites.

Proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) should be used if presence of asbestos is suspected.

Air quality

Air quality across the Wood Buffalo region is no longer being impacted by the Horse River wildfire and all health advisories related to air quality have been lifted. People with a chronic or acute medical condition such as heart, lung, gastrointestinal or kidney disease can now safely return to the community.

As clean up and debris removal is done, air quality will continue to be monitored.

Indoor air quality

Some residents are choosing to have their indoor air tested. The following information is intended to assist those who may choose to test indoor air quality in their homes.

  • Indoor air can be affected by outdoor air, and by natural gas appliances, household cleaners, insect repellants or pesticides.
  • Given the variety and sources of indoor air pollutants, it is not always possible to determine the source of pollutants from an indoor air sample.
  • Due to the number of things that affect indoor air, and the variability in indoor air depending on human activity, air quality testing may not yield the information desired. It is better to take measures to improve air quality.

Improving indoor air quality

  • Cleaning/ laundering or replacing household items and surfaces, especially those that could be described as porous, upholstered or plush (bedding, upholstery, stuffed toys) is the best way to reduce the impacts of smoke and dust on indoor air quality.
  • Ventilating by opening the windows, when the outdoor air quality is good and there is no debris removal or construction work happening in the neighbourhood, will also improve indoor air quality.
  • Using a HEPA grade furnace filter, or shutting air intake and recirculating the HVAC system and keeping windows and doors closed when outdoor air quality is poor or when there is debris removal or heavy equipment operation occurring nearby will help to maintain indoor air quality.
  • Air scrubbers can improve indoor air quality. They work by drawing air through a HEPA filter.
  • Do not use air cleaners that produce ozone. Inhaling ozone is not good for human health.

Hiring contractors to test indoor air

  • If you decide to hire a contractor to test indoor air, be prepared to explain what your concerns are so that they can target their air test to match your concerns.
  • It is better to take indoor air samples after cleaning has taken place.
  • Contractors should be willing to answer your questions and discuss their methods and instruments with you. Methods will be different for different types of air pollutants (chemicals, mould, asbestos), and will depend on suspected sources.
  • Contractors should be able and willing to explain the limitations of the testing they are proposing and on the interpretation of the results. They should explain what criteria or guidelines they will use to interpret air quality testing results.
  • Government departments and agencies cannot interpret the work of an independent contractor because of the range of methods and instruments available for use.
  • Ask contractors to provide information about their accreditation and to provide references.
  • Contractors that are registered or certified professionals or technicians (in fields such as engineering, chemistry, agrology/environmental sciences, occupational or public health) are more likely to have training and experience relevant to the work they are performing.
  • Certified and registered professionals or technicians should be reported to their respective organization if you suspect they are operating outside of their sphere of expertise.

Drinking water quality

Regular sampling is being done at the Fort McMurray water treatment plant and throughout the water distribution system to ensure drinking water is safe to consume as the system is restored to Alberta Environment and Parks standards.

All individuals in or returning to the Fort McMurray area are encouraged to find the most current boil water advisory information online at ahs.ca/wildfire.

Water quality in rivers and streams

To date, there have been no significant impacts on the water quality in the areas from the wildfire, or from run-off from recent rainfall. Proactive monitoring will continue.

Up-to-date monitoring information for rivers and streams is available on Alberta’s river monitoring website. While analysis continues, to date there is nothing significant to report.