Canadian Coast guard crew members are worried the water they use to cook, drink and bathe while out at sea could be making them sick.
Louis Cannon, regional vice-president of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, said at least one of the handful of complaints about the product used to coat water tanks was prompted after one Quebec worker developed pancreatic cancer.
“I’m not a doctor … But there are people who suspect the toxic paint has contributed to their liver, bladder, intestinal and blood-pressure problems, even depression,” said Cannon, who represents Coast Guard members in Quebec.
Cannon says the paint often isn’t allowed to dry long enough, or it’s used with a solvent, against the manufacturer’s instructions.
“This paint never gets hard, it’ll stay humid and can become diluted into the drinking water,” he said.
The paint in question is an epoxy coating used on the inside of water tanks of four Canadian Coast Guard ships.
The ships include the Private Robertson, the Teather and the Constable Carrier, all of which have Sarnia, Ont., listed as their home port. The Alfred Needler is based in Dartmouth, N.S.
Documents obtained by Radio-Canada show toxin levels exceeding federal drinking water norms for xylene and bisphenol A (BPA), as well as the potential carcinogen ethyl-benzene.
Cannon said even a senior federal employee agreed the coating represents a risk.
The UCTE got its hands on an internal document in which a senior manager said the coating in water tanks, when used incorrectly, can leach “dangerous contaminants into the vessel’s drinking water supply.”
In that same report, he wrote the “risk of application error for such coatings is extremely high.”
Cannon estimated more than 100 people are now exposed to the contaminated water. But he said there could be far more.
“There are close to 1,000 people working on Coast Guard ships across the country,” said Cannon. “And that type of painting is used by the Department of National Defence. This affects tens of thousands of people.”
The entire crew working on the research vessel CCGS Amundsen registered a complaint in 2016 saying the water was not fit for consumption.
The crew also complained there was no regular testing, so the water quality cannot be guaranteed.
Health an ‘absolute priority,’ Coast Guard says
The Coast Guard refused Radio-Canada’s request for an interview.
In a written statement, it said the health and safety of its employees is an “absolute priority” and that it only uses products certified by the “National Sanitation Foundation” based in Ann Arbour, Michigan.
It develops standards and tests to provide third-party certification in the public health sector.
A 2007 study from the Institute of Occupational and Maritime Medicine in Germany analyzed the same problem.
Researchers found chemicals such as the ones discovered on the Canadian Coast Guard ships “do not often elicit symptoms” when the quantities are “slightly” above norms.
But they could have an effect on the liver, the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal system.