By Joseph Robertia
As the phrase goes, a “canary in the coal mine” was used as an early warning to alert miners to the presence of poisonous gasses. For a Kasilof sled dog owner, it was her canine companions that tipped her off to contaminants threatening her health.
“I didn’t want any of my dogs to be the canary, dying before I figured out what was wrong,” said Jill Garnet, of Kasilof.
Garnet is a sprint musher who has competed with the best of the best in her sport for several years, but late last year she began to notice a problem in some of the 14 dogs in her kennel.
“It was around mid-December when four out of my 14 started to refuse their meals, which consisted of either kibble and water, or meat and water,” she said.
A dog showing a bit less enthusiasm at dinner time may not sound distressing to the average pet owner, but for sled dogs — trained to wolf down their meals in a matter of seconds — this can be a major sign that something is off.
“Normally I would be putting down their food buckets and by the time I got to the last dog, the first was already done eating and running over trying to get some of the others’ food,” Garnet said. “But these four — including one who was my most voracious eater — started getting to the point where we were having to call them over to try and get them to eat.”
Some days the dogs had no appetite, while other days they seemed to want to eat but would do their best to avoid the liquid part of their diet.
“They didn’t want anything to do with the water,” she said. “They would either eat it without water or they’d tip the bowl to get the water out. We didn’t know what was wrong, so we began a long process of trying to figure out what they weren’t happy with.”
Over the next several weeks Garnet changed the dogs’ brand of food five times. She also attempted to change the temperature of the water offered in case the dogs were being picky about the liquid being too hot.
“We tried to eliminate all the variables, but nothing made a difference,” she said.
The dogs that weren’t eating showed other unusual signs. There was no vomiting or diarrhea, as is often the case with ill dogs, but these four seemed to be struggling during training.
“Some of these dogs were normally on my race team, but they weren’t running up to par,” she said. “They seemed to be struggling to keep up.”
Garnet brought the dogs to a local veterinarian, who could only determine that the dogs were producing red blood cells at a more rapid rate than normal. She got a second opinion at another clinic, and then a third opinion, but no conclusive cause was found.
Three months and several hundred dollars in veterinary expenses later, Garnet, who moved here from the Centennial State, decided to contact the Colorado State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
“They recommended I do a water test, since heavy metal could be causing the symptoms and behaviors I was seeing, and the high red blood cell count,” she said.
Garnet built her cabin and had her 37-foot-deep well drilled in 2007, and at that time she brought a water sample into a local business that offered free analysis for the usual things, such as iron, sediments, as well as determining pH.
“We even paid extra for arsenic testing, but nothing came back showing any problems with our water,” she said.
Heavy metal testing was not part of the battery.
“We were starting to wonder if something had changed with the well,” she said.
Garnet brought a water sample to another laboratory, one approved by the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection, to look for potential hazards in the water, such as bacteria, nitrates and heavy metals. Two weeks and $458 later, Garnet learned there was lead in her water. The level was 6.45 parts per billion.
In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. This law required the EPA to determine safe levels — called Maximum Contaminant Level Goals — of chemicals in drinking water, which do or may cause health problems.
The MCLG for lead has been set at zero because, according to the EPA, this level of protection would avoid any of the potential health problems associated with lead. However, since lead contamination generally occurs from corrosion of household pipes, solder, fixtures, faucets and fittings with brass, and as a result cannot be directly detected or removed by the water system, the “action level” for lead has been set at 15 ppb.
According to the EPA, given present technology and resources, this is the lowest level to which water systems can reasonably be required to control this contaminant.
“Now I have to determine if my well is contaminated or if it’s coming from the pipes or fixtures,” Garnet said.
The amount of lead in water may also depend on the types and amounts of minerals in the water, how long the water stays in the pipes, the amount of wear in the pipes, the water’s acidity and its temperature.
“Hot water can accelerate the leaching,” Garnet said. “And that’s how I fed my dogs. Each got 2 quarts of hot water a day, and more when they were running.”
Garnet alerted her closest neighbors of her findings and said that while neither had done a water analysis, they are now considering it. As of March 1, Garnet had taken all her dogs off the well water while further testing continues. She has been bringing bottled water home and then heating it for the dogs in a large stock pot on her stove.
“They’re slightly more energetic and eating with a little more enthusiasm,” she said. “But heavy metals deposit in bone, tissue and the brain, so it may be a while until they improve all the way, if they improve all the way at all.”
It is unclear if the lead in the well water was conclusively the source of her dogs’ illness. Garnet is continuing veterinary evaluations and testing of the well for her own well-being.
“Whether or not the lead contributed to their problem, we can at least now follow up on the health of our water,” she said.