Is Canada’s tap water safe? Thousands of test results show high lead levels across the country

Is Canada’s tap water safe? Thousands of test results show high lead levels across the country
Hundreds of thousands of Canadians could be consuming tap water laced with high levels of lead leaching from aging infrastructure and plumbing, a large collection of newly-released data and documents reveals.

‘There is no safe level of lead’ for children: Pediatrician

While the water generally contains no lead when it leaves municipal treatment plants, the main sources of the contamination are lead service lines — the pipes that connect homes and apartment buildings with eight dwellings or less to water mains — as well as plumbing fixtures that contain lead and lead solder.

Many cities said that some of the hundreds of thousands of lead pipes underground would likely not be replaced for decades. In addition, the cities also said it was difficult to coordinate replacements since they would require property owners to pay for changing lead pipes on the private side of the property line.

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The journalists collected tests results that measured lead content in tap water in 11 cities. Out of 12,000 tests conducted by cities since 2014, one-third — 33 per cent — exceeded the national safety guideline of five parts per billion (ppb).

A federal parliamentary committee recently stated in a December 2017 report that at least 500,000 homes across Canada were being serviced by antiquated lead pipes.

In addition, the journalists working on this investigation interviewed nearly 1,000 people and filed more than 700 requests through freedom of information legislation to get access to the thousands of municipal water sample test results, which were never previously posted publicly. These add up to a collection of about 79,000 results since 2004.

“I’m shocked, I’m disappointed, I’m angry,” says Michèle Prevost, a Quebec engineering professor who advises governments around the world about drinking water.

“The one thing that’s really missing across Canada is transparency.”

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With the help of residents who volunteered to take part, the journalists collected water tests from 260 older homes across the country, using accepted standards and submitted samples to accredited labs. The results showed 39 per cent of samples had lead levels that exceeded the current Health Canada guideline of five ppb.

Test results from samples taken in cities including Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw and Prince Rupert, B.C., for example, showed lead levels comparable to — or even beyond — those of U.S. cities that have made international headlines for their tainted water.

“I’m surprised,” said Bruce Lanphear, a leading Canadian drinking water researcher who reviewed Canadian lead levels obtained by the investigation.

“These are quite high given the kind of attention that has been given to Flint, Michigan, as having such extreme problems. Even when I compare this to some of the other hotspots in the United States, like Newark, like Pittsburgh, the levels here are quite high.”

In this March 15, 2016 file photo, Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor Marc Edwards testifies on Capitol hills in Washington.

Historically, Toronto’s lead levels were among the highest in Canada — with as many as half of tests exceeding the provincial lead standard in 2008. The city began adding a non-toxic substance called orthophosphate to the water in 2014 to control corrosion.

The plan initially cost $9 million to implement and about $3 million per year to pursue since then. Today, less than two per cent of samples exceed the standard. The process also generates savings as it extends the life of homeowners’ pipes, according to Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and civil engineering at Virginia Tech who helped expose the water crisis in Flint, Mich., in 2015.

“Generally speaking, corrosion control is thought to save about $10 for every dollar you spend on it,” Edwards said.

I’m shocked’: Lead control expert says there needs to be more transparency in Canada

Although the federal government sets national guidelines, in collaboration with other levels of government, it has historically allowed the provinces to set and enforce their own drinking water and standards across the country.

As a result, cities conduct lead tests in different ways. One popular method is heavily criticized for failing to provide accurate real-time results. And when problems are identified, only one province, Ontario, has a regulation that compels municipalities to treat water.

Among the investigation’s other findings:

Montreal’s mayor says she’s dealing with a contaminated lead issue at home

High municipal lead measurements were registered in Saskatchewan and Alberta where there is no mandatory public posting of lead test results. Thirty per cent of Edmonton lead tests show exceedances of the federal guideline including a result of 428 ppb in 2017 — 86 times the federal guideline. And in Moose Jaw, Regina and Saskatoon, homes fed by municipal lead service lines averaged 22 ppb between 2013 and 2018 — four times the national guideline.

Edmonton resident Kathy Davis underwent a heavy metals test after treatments for her hypothyroidism failed to work. (Mackenzie Lad/IIJ)

(Mackenzie Lad/IIJ)

In Nova Scotia , where about half the province draws drinking water from private wells, property owners are responsible for testing but are not compelled to do so. Thirty years ago, a study found 29 per cent of private wells in Hackett’s Cove exceeded the guideline, which was then 50 ppb. Little has changed. Samples collected by journalism students from King’s College at homes tested as high as 80 ppb.

In Halifax, the city’s test data shows nearly a third of tests taken at homes over the past several years have exceeded the federal lead guideline. These results, however, reflect a method of testing water after it has been sitting for several hours in lead pipes and would not reflect the lead levels that would be present in a typical household during the day.

In Ontario, government data posted online shows 919 lead exceedances of the federal guideline of five ppb in lead tests at the tap over the past two years.

Exceedance rates reach as high as 50 per cent in some municipalities. In London, half of the 36 tests conducted last year exceeded the guideline. Windsor had the highest number of exceedances at 289 — a quarter of tests conducted over the past two years. Tests in the town of Terrace Bay on the north shore of Lake Superior exceeded national standards nearly 21 per cent of the time.

Many water systems across the province didn’t test for lead at all in the past two years. Of the province’s approximately 660 municipal water systems, only 123 — one in five — posted results of tests taken at homes during the past two years. Of those, 42 per cent had exceedances.

B.C. Health Minister says lead contamination a ‘significant’ issue with older homes

In Prince Rupert, B.C., 21 of the 25 homes tested by reporters exceeded Health Canada’s guidelines for lead, including for residents who said they were drinking the water or using it for cooking. Results reached as high as 70 ppb.

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One sample collected by UBC journalism students from Leona Peterson’s kitchen faucet last December, for example, registered 15.6 ppb — three times the guideline. Peterson and her son had always drank from the tap without any knowledge of lead in the water, she said. She even used tap water to feed him as a newborn. Now, she feels betrayed.

“I contaminated the hell out of him,” she says. “Being a single mom that has to worry on a daily basis about water…just feels really pathetic…Is this Canada? Are we living in Canada?”

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said that officials have known for some time that Prince Rupert’s acidic water raises the risk of unsafe water, but that they are investing money to improve water treatment and help protect public health.

Health Canada and the World Health Organization agree there is no safe level of lead. In Canada, it has been banned in paint and gasoline, tin cans and toys. Today, drinking water and food are the leading source of lead for Canadians.

Lead pipes were banned from use in new construction in 1975, when the national building code was amended. But lead service lines owned by municipalities continue to feed water into residences and businesses and there is no comprehensive inventory.

Similarly, the number of Canadian homes that have lead plumbing is unknown. Homes built before 1975 are particularly vulnerable, although lead solder was used on pipes until 1986. Plumbing fixtures such as bronze and brass taps were another source of lead until 2013, when federal regulations changed.

“Imagine drinking the water through a…30-foot long lead straw,” says Edwards, the engineering professor from Virginia Tech.

”Sometimes that water comes through it okay, but every now and then a chunk of lead falls off into the water. If it’s water you use for cooking or drinking, it can have real serious health consequences.”

Experts call threats from lead exposure a simmering public health crisis.

A single glass of water highly tainted with lead can elevate a child’s blood lead level to require hospitalization, he says.

In March, when Health Canada cut the guideline for acceptable lead levels in drinking water in half — to five ppb from 10 ppb — it noted that reduction in IQ can occur even at concentrations as low as five ppb. At high levels of exposure, lead can damage the prefrontal cortex, contribute to anti-social behaviour and behavioural problems in children, cause prenatal growth abnormalities and is an established risk factor for hypertension, chronic kidney disease and tremors in adults.

More than 400,000 deaths are attributable to lead exposure — from all sources — every year in the U.S., according to a 2018 study co-authored by Lanphear, and published in the Lancet.

“[Lead] has been linked with not only IQ deficits in children, but spontaneous abortion and miscarriage in women, pre-term birth in women, hypertension in adults, premature deaths from cardiovascular disease in adults,” Lanphear said in an interview.

“It’s clearly a major public health problem, even if it’s an insidious one.”

There are also economic impacts. A 2013 Health Canada risk management strategy predicted an economic benefit of more than $9 billion a year “if the exposure of Canadian children to lead could be eliminated.” It factored the number of children exposed each year and the impact on intellectual development and lifetime earnings.

Lanphear, who is also a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University, said that Canada could reduce cases of illnesses such as hypertension and coronary heart disease if it focused on reducing lead exposure, which is a major risk factor. He noted that cases of both illnesses dropped dramatically in recent decades in North America after companies stopped using them in both gasoline and paint.

‘I don’t want citizens to be worried’: Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante insists water is safe to drink

‘I don’t want citizens to be worried’: Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante insists water is safe to drink

But he said more could be done to reduce the amount of money that people are still spending on medication to treat these illnesses.

“If you took a poll of Canadians and you gave them an option, would you rather never have hypertension and coronary heart disease, or would you rather rely on an expensive drug to solve the problem once you already have it?” he asked.

“My guess is the majority of Canadians would rather never had had it in the first place. Not only is it expensive, there’s all these side effects.”

Montreal public health official says tap water ‘remains the healthiest choice’

Yet lead in drinking water persists as a public health crisis in Canada, enabled by a patchwork of policies and few mandated protocols governing testing.

The federal government can provide infrastructure funding and Health Canada can set national guidelines, but they are not enforcing these guidelines. The management, treatment and distribution of drinking water fall to the provinces, while the day-to-day, hands-on functions of water systems fall to the municipalities.

That lack of federal oversight is in stark contrast to the United States, where the Environmental Protection Agency imposes legal standards for testing and public disclosure, including an annual Consumer Confidence Report provided by water utilities to homeowners that details lead test results.

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In Canada, there are no federally-mandated control methods, lead pipe removal requirements or lead test protocols. Health Canada recommends lead testing at residential taps, but B.C. and Alberta don’t require municipalities to do so. During consultations with Health Canada about the new guideline, many provinces lamented the high cost of testing at residential taps and in schools. Manitoba said testing would be a “significant burden” and Yukon noted that “it is not possible to quantify any potential impact…due to a lack of exposure data.”

Montreal previously set a goal of removing tens of thousands of lead pipes in the city by 2026, but announced in October that it was pushing that target back to 2030.

In Ontario, the 919 lead exceedances of the federal guideline over the past two years reflect the hundreds of thousands of lead lines feeding homes and businesses across the province.

Water officials across Ontario agree on the need to get the lead out. But they repeatedly told reporters that municipalities are many years — or decades — away from being able to pay for it.

Even if municipalities did have the means to aggressively remove lead lines, most wouldn’t even know where to start digging. There is no provincial or federal inventory of lead lines.

Reporters surveyed 50 Ontario municipalities and half reported they could not provide an estimate of how many lead pipes — on public and private property — are feeding homes. In other cases, water officials offered broad guesses.

“Very difficult to estimate — perhaps 10,000 [lead lines on private property],” wrote London water quality manager Huggins.

Port Colborne environmental compliance supervisor Darlene Suddard wrote: “We are not required to know [the number of remaining lead pipes].”

Ryan Peterson, chief operator of the Kenora Water Treatment plant, wrote: “We are aware of a few private lead services but it is possible that there are more we are not aware of.”

Sixteen municipalities provided estimates totalling more than 180,000 lead lines delivering water to homes and buildings. An estimated 30,000 of these lead lines are in Toronto, but the records providing their locations are among tens of thousands of paper documents that cannot be easily searched, officials said.

“I think that one of the takeaways from this investigation is that here we are relying on journalists to do public health work,” Lanphear, from SFU, said.

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“And isn’t this unusual. We see the same thing in the ‘States. Is it because there’s not enough resources? Well, if that’s the case, we need to find ways to increase the funding so that public health officers or environmental health officers can do their job.”
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