The Cree community of Fort Albany, Ontario, is in a crisis that looks to some like a repeat of the horrors that residents of their sister community, Kashechewan, have endured over the past four years.
Serious cases of mould, fungus and dangerous toxins contaminate 26 houses that are less than seven years old, according to Mushkegowuk Council Deputy Chief Leo Friday.
“I think we have to really inspect the problem and come up with an assessment fast,” Friday told the Nation. “A lot of kids are getting sick.”
One extreme case discovered during a July 19 visit by outraged Members of Parliament and health officials concerned a boy suffering from Atopic Dermatitis. He has since become the poster child for what went wrong.
“We are looking at a health horror story,” said Charlie Angus, NDP MP for the riding of Timmins James Bay. “In some houses we found elders sleeping in homes with rotted floors. In another home we saw a young child who is relying on steroids and ventilators to keep down the swelling and sores that are covering his entire body. These are families living with unbelievable levels of mould, fungus and toxins.”
Angus called on Indian Affairs to come up with a solution quickly-“INAC needs to learn the lessons of Kashechewan,” he said. “They have been missing in action on this file. They can’t sit back and wait for this latest James Bay crisis to blow over. They need to come to the table and take some responsibility.”
Deputy Chief Friday said poor construction and bad drainage in the affected houses are most likely to blame. Although it was unclear who built the houses, the band’s housing inspector would have to have signed off on them. But Friday said there might be more to it than just a signature.
“I don’t think there was enough funding to properly construct the houses in the first place,” said Friday, although he did not use it as an excuse for the current situation. “I don’t know what to say, it’s a terrible situation that I hope is fixed soon.”
After the initial meeting of MPs, health officials, the Mushkegowuk Council and the Fort Albany band council July 19, a follow up visit five days later looked to foster a temporary solution.
Dr. Robert Gabor from the James Bay Weeneebayko Hospital issued his medical opinion July 19. He was appalled with what he saw.
“One of the houses in particular, there was a really strong, musty odour in the entire house no matter where you went,” he said. “We saw visible mould growing in one of the houses in every single room. There were definite signs of water damage; you can see mould and the flooding that took place.”
Dr. Gabor said his job was to raise awareness of the health hazards of dampness and visible mould, which may indicate a rather wide range of exposure.
“There’s bacteria in these kinds of environments, there’s volatile organic compounds, there’s dust mites, there’s cockroaches,” said Gabor, who also mentioned the dampness-related chemical release from building materials.
Dr. Gabor said that there are quite a number of people from Fort Albany who come into the hospital with asthma problems triggered by mould. He also said a severe attack can be life threatening, stressing the importance of fixing the problem immediately.
The inspectors entered five houses, four of which are less than seven years old. Dr. Gabor said he is not a qualified building inspector, but the condition of the interior of the houses was substandard at best.
He said that there is most likely an association between the health conditions of the people and the poor construction and water damage that has gone unresolved for too long, although he lacks proof.
“I think there are basic violations of building code that went on during the construction of these houses. I think the land is not drained properly, I don’t think the foundations are appropriate. They’re made of cinder block and they’re not insulated. So even in areas where there is no flooding or the flooding has dried up, there is still evidence of constant water damage.”
Dr. Gabor said that he does not feel the need to evacuate community members. He does however suggest immediate relocation to currently vacant houses within Fort Albany until it is decided what, if anything, can be done about the infected homes.
“There was water damage in areas of the home that was well above ground level,” he said. “The floors of the children’s bedrooms are a minimum of a metre and a half above ground, so you know this water is seeping and constantly being sucked up from the basement level or the ground level. That’s unacceptable and dangerous.”
Kashechewan became a horrible example of what is wrong with the current reserve system in Canada. The community was evacuated three times in three years and the local elementary school has been shut down because of flooding of the nearby dyke.
They dealt with severe mould problems as well and are currently weighing their options on moving the community – which has a potable water system that is downstream from their sewage plant – to Timmins, or to stay in their territory and move 10 kilometres upstream.