Health officials in New Brunswick are trying to determine why four people in a small community in the Miramichi area have higher than normal levels of arsenic in their blood.
Some residents in Blackville, a community of about 900, are being offered free water testing as a precaution.
Denis Allard, the regional medical officer of health, said Thursday that four adults are being treated for arsenic in their systems.
“There is a link of some sort between the cases,” Allard said.
He refused to give specifics on the link to protect the identity of the four people.
“The type of link that’s there makes us think that there could be a common source of exposure between these people that may not necessarily be affecting the greater population,” he said.
Well testing has suggested that water is not the source.
Allard said the first case was reported in September after that person’s doctor ordered blood tests. The second case was recorded a few weeks later, he said, and the final two cases emerged last week.
The final three people were tested because of their link to the first case, and only the first person has displayed symptoms of arsenic poisoning, said Allard.
“It’s more like neurological symptoms, feeling like pins and needles and things like that,” he said. “The other individuals don’t have symptoms that would make us think that the arsenic would have an effect on their body as yet.”
All are being treated by their doctors, and none are in hospital.
Finding the source is confounding public health officials.
“We asked (the four patients) questions about the foods they ate, about their occupation, any commercial products they may use that may contain arsenic, and we looked at what kinds of pills they may have,” Allard said.
“We looked at their hobbies and we even had questions about whether they thought that anybody in the community may want to harm them, such as people who would want to poison them, and all these things came out negative, so we’re back to square one.”
An epidemiologist from the Public Health Agency of Canada is expected to arrive Monday to help with the investigation.
Allard said there’s no real advice officials can give to the four people.
“At this stage we don’t really have any evidence that would give us any good reason for telling them to either move out of their home or not to drink their well water, for example, because we found it OK,” he said.
Blackville Councillor Jake Stewart said the village council is doing everything it can to help residents get the information they need.
“Right now, it’s quite scary because there are a lot of young kids between the ages of one and five that are really sick right here where I live,” he said.
He said his son has been battling a variety of illnesses from birth
“I had my son, Roman, to the Miramichi hospital (Wednesday) because he was really sick,” he said.
“When my wife went in, she asked if she could have him tested for arsenic poisoning … All the kids in the neighbourhood have high fevers once a month, unexplainably, with no infection whatsoever with it.”
Arsenic is a naturally occurring substance and has been discovered in large amounts in Harvey, N.B., and also in Aroostook County, Maine.
Blackville is about 100 kilometres northeast of Fredericton.
“Everybody pretty well thinks it’s in the water, but the water was tested before and didn’t show anything,” Blackville Mayor Glen Hollowood told the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.
“So this is pretty serious because arsenic is something that can eventually lead to cancer.”
The mayor said that each of the four individuals live within a few metres of one another, adding that officials seemed to be condensing their investigation to that area.
“There’s definitely something going on, and if I was living in that area I would be getting tested for arsenic, and I probably will anyway.”