The swing set outside Ron Marston’s house warms him with a smile and then a shudder.
His two-year-old granddaughter has spent countless hours playing in his yard, swinging on the swing set – without him knowing there were dangerously high levels of lead ‘somewhere’ on his property.
“You know what little kids are like, they put things in their mouths,” said Marston, whose yard has a lead level six times the provincial limit at one spot.
The problem surfaced when government contractors were sent to clean up radioactive waste from Eldorado Nuclear Ltd., a former crown corporation.
During the cleanup, the surveyors also found other contaminants, likely from different industrial sources – sometimes at dangerously high levels.
At some properties, lead levels at the surface reach as high as 10 times the provincial limit, while arsenic levels at the surface are up to seven times the allowable maximums.
And the local families had no idea where the lead was located or at what depth – until Global News let them know.
“To not tell us? I don’t understand that,” Marston said.
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The findings point to a troubling lack of openness and up-front disclosure by a company that is being paid federal tax dollars from every Canadian to handle the cleanup responsibly.
“They have an ethical duty to disclose,” Dave McLaughlin, a former assistant director with the Ministry of the Environment who has studied Port Hope extensively, said. “If nothing else, there should be a statement that says this represents a risk and you should do this, or don’t worry there’s no risk here.”
The Port Hope Area Initiative (PHAI) is in charge of the radioactive cleanup. Anything that isn’t radioactive falls outside its mandate, so it isn’t responsible for fixing it. Approximately 4,800 properties are being surveyed, with the project lasting until 2022.
Inspections for the first 461 homes started in late 2012, with the details of the contamination, radioactive and otherwise, coming to light in 2015.
The PHAI is aware of the precise location, depth and concentration of the contaminants. Many homeowners, however, are not.
“Five years ago if they didn’t know anything about it because they weren’t testing, fine. But once you did know something about it, don’t you think it’s decent to tell people?” Marston said.
The PHAI did send letters to some homeowners in the area though.
Dawn Reid, a grandmother who lives just around the corner from Marston, received hers in March 2015.
“Our property results are 45,000. Criteria: 120,” Reid said.
That means the amount of lead in Reid’s soil is 375 times the provincial limit.
“I’m not a scientist. I don’t know,” Reid said.
Similar letters were sent out to other homeowners from the first round of surveying, with a table identifying “elevated levels of other waste material.”
The letters directed homeowners to contact the PHAI or the Ministry of the Environment for more information.
That letter has sat in Reid’s dresser for more than two years. All the while, the PHAI has had far more detailed information about Reid’s property, including exactly where the lead was found, at what depth it exists and whether it is slated for cleanup along with the radioactive waste in 2019.
In the meantime, Reid’s grandchildren have been playing obliviously outside.
“They’re very much in the yard,” she said.
What are the health effects of lead poisoning?
Lead poses a serious health threat, especially to young children whose brains are still developing.
“You’re going to have long-term effects on learning and IQ deficits and potentially on behaviour,” said Kathleen Cooper, a senior researcher with the Canadian Environmental Law Association said.
“If they’re crawling around outside, they’re getting it on their hands, the hand to mouth concerns, tracking it in indoors, contributing to the burden of the dust in the house,” she said.
“Women of child bearing age or pregnant women need to be concerned as well.”
WATCH: Here are 7 simple steps you can take to safeguard yourself and your family against lead contaminated soil, from a lead expert.
There’s also evidence that exposure over a long period of time can lead to hypertension, high blood pressure, and heart disease, according to Cooper.
The Mayo Clinic states, “initially, lead poisoning can be hard to detect — even people who seem healthy can have high blood levels of lead. Signs and symptoms usually don’t appear until dangerous amounts have accumulated.”
“What this tells me is that they have revealed a more serious problem than what this project is intended to address,” Cooper said. “I think the Ministry of Environment needs to get involved and the Municipality.
“This needs a much more thorough investigation.”
The highest concentration of lead on Reid’s property is 45,000ppm and is buried 1.2 metres below the surface. There, it doesn’t pose a risk to her or her grandchildren.
But through data analysis, Global News was able to determine that on Reid’s property, just 30 centimetres beneath the surface, there are lead levels 22 times the limit and at the surface there is lead at nearly five times the limit.
“I don’t like it and I’m definitely going to be asking questions,” Reid said.
What’s more, those high concentrations of lead won’t be cleaned up as Reid had assumed, because they’re not mixed with radioactive waste.
“If you had toddler-aged children in your home, and you had soil lead levels that were between 400 to 1000 ppm and the soil was bare, then yes, I would say there’s a potential for health risk for your child,” Dave McLaughlin, a phytotoxicologist who spent 35 years with the Ministry of the Environment, said.
Global News was able to identify 43 properties, from the first round of surveying, which had surface lead levels at concentrations greater than 400ppm – including Reid’s.
“Property owners are encouraged, and they’re welcome to come and view the reports and have copies of them.” Craig Hebert, the general manager of the PHAI said. He says property owners were notified verbally about non-radioactive waste found on their land.
“I talk to them quite regularly and they’ve never mentioned it,” Marston said.
What’s more, Marston never got a letter from the PHAI because the contaminants on his property fall within the scope of the project and will be removed.
Marston got his blood checked for lead after learning his soil was dangerous and was able to determine his levels are within a safe range.
Homeowner says there’s “no excuse”
“It should’ve been brought to my attention immediately,” said Erica French, who recently started renting a home in the city.
Her 18-month-old grandchild sometimes visits, playing in the yard that surrounds her home.
She was unaware the lead level in at least one spot of her property is five times the provincial limit.
“There’s no excuse for not telling people,” she continued.
In the legal agreement between the government of Canada and the municipalities of Port Hope and Clarington, it states that if “other contamination” is found “Canada shall immediately notify the property owner, the appropriate regulatory agency and the Municipality in which the contamination is situate(d) in order that the property owner may be able to address the matter in a timely manner.”
Nearly three years after the contaminants were found, Marston and other homeowners have yet to see those details.
“There’s a number of homeowners and property owners that don’t want this information,” Hebert said. “We are providing it under the direction of the legal agreement, which we are in compliance with, but there are also sensitivities with respect to making that information known, with the potential of impacting their ability to transact their property.”
The PHAI set up the Property Value Protection Program to compensate homeowners whose properties decrease in value because of the radioactive waste and cleanup. However, there is no such plan for homeowners with waste, like lead, from other industrial sources.
Two-and-a-half years after receiving the information, the Ontario Ministry of Environment says it is now “currently reviewing the property owner notification letters and has requested additional data to review for selected properties,” adding that soil contamination outside the scope of the PHAI is the homeowner’s responsibility.
The Government of Canada said it “verified and is satisfied” that the PHAI has been informing homeowners. However, it says, they are interested in hearing from Canadians about “improving their communications around non-radiological contamination.”
The local health unit never received copies of the disclosure letters, nor more detailed information on high levels of lead or arsenic, according to a spokesperson. The Municipality of Port Hope received copies of the letters, but no additional data.