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70 To 225 Times Standard: Test Detects Radon In Red Earth Water

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      MARCH 1977      v07 n03 p05  
Concentrations of radioactive radon gas 70 to 225 times higher than the level considered safe for other radioactive elements, have been discovered in drinking water on the Red Earth Reserve, 60 miles northeast of Nipawin.

A survey by the mineral division of the department of Indian affairs discovered concentrations of the gas averaging 675 picocuries per liter.

The federal government considers 10 Picocuries per liter the maximum allowable level of radioactive radium in water. The provincial level is three picocuries per liter.

A picocurie is a measure of radiation, a process in which the structure of certain substances break down, emitting tiny, invisible particles. Radiation has long been considered a health hazard and has been linked to the development of cancer in humans.

Dr. Pip Bentley, director of the medical services branch of the department of national health and welfare in Saskatchewan, was informed of the Red Earth situation in a letter from Indian affairs' regional director Joe Leask.

Bentley said the Red Earth band council was informed and advised that reserve residents be asked to stop drinking the water.

Band chief, John William Head said Sunday, March 20, he would tell residents to stop using the water during that week.

The well in which the abnormally high radiation levels have been discovered is located at the reserve's cooperative lumber mill.

William. Head said 36 people in adjacent houses were using the water and they would now be asked to take their drinking water from Red Earth Creek.

The well has been in use since the mill was built seven years ago, the chief said.

Al Taylor, an environmental health officer for the medical services branch, had earlier denied the well was used for drinking water. Taylor said a branch employee who visited the reserve was told residents only used the well for washing because the water tasted bad.

But residents interviewed by the Saskatchewan Indian said they preferred the water for drinking because of its clarity.

William Head said lower levels of radon gas have been found in all seven of the reserve's wells, but he did not have the precise figures.

On March 20, only three of the wells, including the mill well, were operating. The other four were frozen and William Head said he was trying to get Indian affairs to repair them.

Because the level of radon gas in the mill well is "almost unbelievably high", Taylor said, a sample was sent to the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) for further testing.

Dr. Gene Smithson who performed the test said the SRC has no facilities to test for radon gas in water, but discovered only small

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The mill well at Red Earth
The mill well at Red Earth Reserve where high levels of radioactive radon gas were discovered in a survey done by the minerals division of the department of Indian affairs. Thirty-six people use the well for drinking water.

70 To 225 Times Standard: Test Detects Radon In Red Earth Water

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      MARCH 1977      v07 n03 p06  
amounts of other radioactive materials normally found in conjunction with radon. No radium was found and only 0.5 picocuries of lead 210. Radium and lead 210 are respectively the "mother" and "daughter" products of radon.

Smithson said the results would seem to indicate the source of the radon gas is not far beneath the ground.

Authorities are uncertain what effect the contaminated water could have on the health of those drinking it.

Any of the radon absorbed by the bloodstream would be deposited in the bones, said Stuart Houston, a scientist at the University of Saskatchewan's College of Medicine, who is interested in the effects of radiation on the body.

On the basis of current evidence, Houston said the amount of radon gas found in the water was approaching a hazardous level for adults, and was certainly hazardous for children.

If the radon gas source is close to the surface of the Red Earth Reserve, Taylor said there is a danger it will seep through the soil and collect in buildings-most notably the new school being built in the mill well vicinity.

Generally, however, he minimized the danger. "Right now we don't think it's a problem and the people we're talking to don't think it's a problem."

"But when it comes to radiation everybody's a little hedgy including myself, primarily because I don't really know enough about it."

Radon gas is known to have produced lung cancer among miners breathing the gas in dusty mine environments.

The source of the radon gas on Red Earth has not been identified, but officials are speculating it might betray the presence of a radioactive ore body which might - despite the current health hazard- yield economic benefit for the 500-member band.

The reserve is not located in a geological zone which scientists would expect to yield uranium or any other form of radioactive ore body, however.

All Saskatchewan's known uranium ore bodies have been discovered further north in the pre-cambrian shield.

Copyright 1977
The Saskatchewan Indian

Chief John William Head of the Red Earth Reserve leans on one of the reserve's well pumps
Chief John William Head of the Red Earth Reserve leans on one of the reserve's well pumps. The chief said he was asking the people using the contaminated mill well to take their drinking water from Red Earth Creek. The well in this picture is frozen.