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 (November 21, 2016) (0.1 MB)

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 early May.

A final stage of soil sampling will occur in public areas following clean-up, but no more testing on private property will be conducted.

New results will be posted on this page when available.

Soil quality

After a fire, the top layers of soil will contain ash from forest and man-made materials. Therefore, ash is a potential source of contaminants to the soil. 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) - Table 9
  • Inorganics and general chemistry (including pH) – Table 10
  • Metals - Table 11
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) - Table 12
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) - Table 13
  • Dioxins and furans – Table 14

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

More information on soil sampling

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 indicate fair to poor soil quality that may affect plant growth, but not human health.
  3. Results from community gardens in 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 twelve samples from unburned areas and five samples from burned areas.

 Additional soil sampling in burned and unburned public areas will occur after clean-up and debris removal is completed to confirm these areas are reclaimed.

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 include 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) - Table 1
  • Inorganics and general chemistry (including pH) - Table 2
  • Metals - Table 3
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) - Table 4
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) - Table 5
  • Dioxins and furans - Table 6
  • Asbestos (bulk) in ash - Table 7
  • Asbestos (fibrous) in air - Table 8

Results were compared against Alberta Tier 1 and Tier 2 Soil Guidelines (Residential/Parkland). 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 ash 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. Soil quality guidelines have been 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 has a high pH value. Thus, the ash is caustic and it may cause skin and respiratory irritation and burns;
  2. Heavy metals like arsenic, hexavalent chromium, and lead are present in ash at concentrations above health-based soil screening values; and
  3. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins, and furans have been 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 has a similar chemical composition to ash in parts of Fort McMurray more heavily damaged by the fire.

The level of risk from the contaminants is related to the volume of ash and level of damage in the neighbourhoods. It is due to the extremely high volume of ash and debris that residents of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways are unable to return home and additional precautions are required to protect human health.

To further minimize the risk of ash being blown into other neighbourhoods, the municipality has sprayed the ash and debris with a tackifier to minimize ash movement if disturbed by wind or clean-up areas. A second round of tackifier was applied following sifting. Specific safety requirements will be in place to minimize the movement of ash during clean up. Mobile air monitoring has shown no evidence of ash migrating to non-impacted areas from the most affected areas.

For homes facing areas where structures have been destroyed by fire, placards were placed on the front doors. Residents with pink placards at their homes are encouraged to call the PULSE line at 780-743-7000 to arrange a home inspection by Alberta Health Services.

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 6th 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 (two samples);
  • Abasand (seven samples);
  • Waterways (two samples); and
  • Anzac (four 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.