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Arsenic, well water and cancer in Nova Scotia

There’s nothing like a refreshing glass of cold water. In Nova Scotia, however, that water may well contain arsenic – and arsenic is known to cause cancer, specifically, bladder and kidney cancers.

Nathalie StJacques
Cancer Care Nova Scotia epidemiologist Nathalie Saint-Jacques is mapping these cancers and arsenic levels across the province. Her research – a first – is being funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Nathalie recently won a prestigious CIHR Doctoral Award, the Frederick Banting and Charles Best Canada Graduate Scholarship, which will enable her to conduct her research for the next three years.






Cancer Care Nova Scotia epidemiologist, Nathalie Saint- Jacques


This research is important to Nova Scotia, which, because of its geology, has some of the highest arsenic levels in drinking water in the country. “The Health Canada advisory limit for arsenic in drinking water is 10 μg/L. However, arsenic levels in excess of 1,000 μg/L have been reported in some Nova Scotia wells and levels above 25 μg/L are common,” says Nathalie.

“As well,” she adds, “private well-water quality is unregulated in Nova Scotia despite the fact that nearly 45% of our population depend on private well-water sources for drinking.”

Nathalie, who is completing her PhD at Dalhousie, is looking at the arsenic and cancer landscape in Nova Scotia. Literally. Using information on wells provided by the Environment Department, geological surveys, and cancer data collected as part of the Atlantic PATH cancer study, she is unraveling the links between all three.

“We’re building layers of maps,” explains Nathalie.“I’m looking to quantify the risk of developing urinary tract cancers (bladder and kidney cancer) that is attributable to arsenic exposure in Nova Scotia drinking water.”

The research intrigued Nathalie for two reasons. First, she points out, “the rates of these cancers in Nova Scotia are among the highest in Canada.”

In addition, she says, “the impact of the disease on public health is also significant; among males bladder cancer is the fourth most common cancer.”

Several factors are known to increase the risk of urinary tract cancers. One of those is drinking water containing high levels of arsenic, a natural element in well water and a Class I carcinogen. “The magnitude of the cancer risks associated with arsenic exposure in Nova Scotia is unknown,” says Nathalie. “My research aims to address this knowledge gap.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the research – bridging geology, geography, biology, statistics, and epidemiology – also appeals to Nathalie. “Although I have been working in cancer epidemiology for nearly a decade, my training was in biology with much of my work focusing on the effect of people on the environment. So, this current research is a fantastic opportunity to go full circle,” she says.

The research could also help to reduce the rates of urinary tract cancers in the province by alerting individuals and government to areas of concern. “There is a lot of evidence that arsenic causes cancer, but much of this research focuses on areas of very high arsenic concentrations,” says Nathalie. “I’m looking at lower levels of arsenic to determine the risk. A large number of people are likely exposed to these lower levels.”

One of the challenges is identifying who has been exposed and when. That’s where data from the Atlantic PATH study – including well-water samples from as many as 5,000 participants and toenail clippings from upwards of 15,000 Nova Scotians – will be invaluable. “If you have arsenic in your toenails,” notes Nathalie, “we know you have accumulated it in your body.”

Nathalie’s research supervisors are: Dr. Louise Parker, Senior Epidemiologist, Chair in Population Cancer Research and professor of Pediatrics and Medicine; and Dr. Trevor Dummer, Health Geographer, Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Dalhousie University.

Funding partners for her research include: Canadian Cancer Society, Nova Scotia Health Research Foundations, and the Canadian Institute for Health Research.

Cancer Care Nova Scotia provides in-kind support.


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