Residents of Yellowknife, Ndilo, and Dettah are embarking on a second wave of testing designed to help scientists understand how local people are exposed to arsenic from Giant Mine.

The defunct gold mine, parked on Yellowknife’s northerly city limit, holds 237,000 tonnes of highly toxic arsenic trioxide – a byproduct of the mining process used at Giant – in underground chambers.

The federal government is embarking on a project to clean up the mine at an estimated cost of around $1 billion. As part of that plan, researchers are testing residents to establish baseline levels of arsenic exposure in the mine’s neighbourhood, and track those levels for any change while the clean-up operation takes place.

“We are testing people for levels of arsenic and other metals. We want to see what’s inside people’s bodies,” explained Renata Rosol, who works for the testing project – which is dubbed the Health Effects Monitoring Program (or HEMP).

“You can’t get this at the doctor’s office, but we can do it. This is your chance to find out. This information is lacking for the city of Yellowknife, there is no information at all.”

‘We can see it’

A first wave of testing took place last fall, with 898 residents taking part. The second wave began this week: Yellowknife residents were selected at random using the city’s housing list and have received letters inviting them to participate, while members of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation or North Slave Métis Alliance are encouraged to volunteer by contacting the program.

“A lot of people have been wanting this for a very long time, but some people have the attitude that it’s not necessary because people living in Ndilo can see Giant Mine,” said Liz Liske, who is coordinating the program for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.

“They say, ‘If we can see it, obviously we’ve been exposed to stuff so why do I need to do a test?’ I explain it like being in a court: you can’t prove something unless you have evidence, so this is evidence of any sort of exposure.”

The program is a requirement of the federal remediation project’s licence to operate, and its creation is not necessarily an indication that residents have already experienced unusual or unhealthy levels of exposure. However, considerable evidence exists of heightened arsenic levels in the soils and lakes surrounding the mine.

The program’s first results – which have been delayed due to a laboratory backlog – will not be returned to first-wave participants until September, after which a summary will be released to the public.

The test

Data from 2017 and 2018 tests serves as a baseline. It can be compared to data from other Canadians in separate tests, but it won’t help researchers understand change in local residents over time until future tests are carried out to provide a comparison.

“In 2022 and 2023 we’ll come back to do children, because their bodies are growing and they’re more vulnerable,” said Rosol. “Ten years from now we’ll do everyone again, adults and children.”

The test involves a saliva swab administered by a nurse, a urine test and toenail sample (both of which you take yourself, in your own time), and a questionnaire, as well as measurements of your height, weight, and blood pressure.

Yellowknife residents with questions can email the program; Yellowknives Dene First Nation members should call Liz Liske on 867-445-4552 to volunteer and set up an appointment. Your personal results will only be shared with you and will not be published, other than as part of an anonymized summary. You can also visit the program’s website for more information.