January 27, 2016 9:00 am
Updated: January 29, 2016 7:49 pm

Lead in the water: Tens of thousands of Canadian households still have toxic pipes

WATCH: Lead pipes: where the city's responsibility ends and yours begins


Flint, Michigan is hardly the only place with problematic pipes.

Tens of thousands of Torontonians get their drinking water from lead pipes. You may not know whether you do. The city doesn’t know, either.

Either way, you’re on the hook for the cost of replacing them — even if the city’s underground operations put your drinking water more at risk.

Story continues below
Global News

The overwhelmingly poor, predominantly black American community of Flint is under a state of emergency because of its undrinkable drinking water — the result, a deluge of coverage has revealed, of years of administrative neglect.

READ MORE: 4 questions about Flint’s water

The state of Flint’s drinking water is an instance of compounded contaminations: getting water from a polluted river as a money-saving stopgap measure; under-testing or poorly testing or ignoring test results; failure to put anti-corrosive agents into the water, leading to the entirely predictable, eminently dangerous corrosion of lead pipes and concomitant leaching of lead into water destined for human consumption.

WATCH: Flint residents protest having to pay water bills for tainted water

The situation in Canada’s biggest city isn’t nearly as dire. (In Canada’s smallest communities, as Global News has reported, the feds won’t even tell you how your water-treatment scores.)

But the health risk is not negligible. If your water flows through lead pipes on its way to your tap it can pick up lead on the way. Repeated exposure can have serious health consequences, harming your nervous system, your cardiovascular system, your neurodevelopment, your kidneys, your reproductive organs.

It’s especially damaging if you’re very old or very young or pregnant.

The most recent numbers we have indicate 15 per cent of Toronto water has dangerously high levels of lead, and 5.4 per cent have lead levels double what’s considered safe.

City council nonetheless killed a program that would have loaned the city’s poorest residents money to replace their lead pipes.

The city still doesn’t know which homes have lead pipes or how many there are, although its most recent estimate was at least 34,000.

When it replaces lead “service lines,” as they’re called, it’s either because it was going to dig them up anyway — as part of capital projects or emergency work — or because you asked them to, with the intention of replacing half of it yourself.

And it continues to only replace its half of lead water systems even though the city’s own studies have shown that makes the water three times more dangerous for the people drinking it.

Toronto’s proposed loan program wouldn’t have cost the city anything: Residents would pay back the one-time cost of the replacement over several years through their property taxes — with interest.

But the city rejected the million-dollar investment anyway, on the same day it voted to write off $25 million in loans the city had given the Sony Centre, the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts and the Lakeshore Arena Corporation, and now will never get back.

At the time, councillor and Public Works Committee Chair Jaye Robinson, Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong and Mayor John Tory were among those who spoke out against loaning Torontonians money to get the poison out of their water pipes. (You can see how your councillor voted here.)

“I have trouble buying it because I’ve just seen too many fiascos come out of this place,” Tory said, according to Torontoist’s meeting minutes.

That means residents are on their own, even though the people most at risk of lead poisoning — poor people; immigrants; people of colour; people who have nutritional or other health problems already — are also the least likely to proactively check their plumbing and pay thousands of dollars to have it pulled up and replaced.

“Lead adversely affects those that are most vulnerable in our society: infants, children and pregnant women,” reads a Toronto Board of Health report.

“Research also shows that those that are already experiencing other vulnerabilities (i.e., individuals experiencing low income, poor nutrition, newcomers, racialized individuals) are the most at risk from exposure to lead,” Toronto’s board of health report says.

Leaden unknowns

Toronto first started testing for lead in 2007, at the province’s behest. It failed: More than 10 per cent of tests in two separate rounds of sampling had dangerously high concentrations of lead. The province’s threshold is 10µg/L — 10 millionths of a gram per litre — although the city’s board of health has suggested tighter standards may be in order.


The city’s original plan was to get rid of all city-owned lead water pipes by 2017.

Instead, the city scaled back its pipe replacement targets, encouraging homeowners to replace their own pipes and give the city a head’s up so it could tear up its half of the pipes at the same time.

In 2014 Toronto started treating its water with phosphate, an anti-corrosive agent designed form a protective coating inside water pipes to keep the lead from leaching into the water.

We don’t know if it’s helping because when the city started using phosphate to lower lead concentrations in drinking water the province decided it could take a three-year break from testing its drinking water for lead, Toronto Water says.


In the meantime, the city has been collecting data from homeowners who ask for lead tests themselves. About XX do a year.

Fifteen per cent of the samples done between 2011 and 2013 were above the safe limit; 5.4 per cent were more than double that threshold. And those are just the households that volunteered to test their water.


Cities across the country are in the midst of multi-year processes to remove those pipes.

A report presented at a 2011 Montreal workshop on the issue of lead in drinking water found replacing half of a lead service line can actually triple the amount of lead entering the water compared to a lead-only pipe.

“Results showed that placing a copper pipe in front of a lead pipe is much worse than a situation with a lead pipe in front of a copper pipe, possibly due to deposition corrosion,” Clément Cartier is quoted as saying.

Montreal has said people living in houses built before 1970 could have lead service lines, and recommends letting the water run for a few minutes once it’s cold and cleaning the aerators in your faucets.

The city also recommends pregnant women and parents of young children — especially for anyone feeding babies formula with water — to use a water filter or “drink bottled water.”

About 3,400 Edmonton homes have lead pipes, according to utility company Epcor. If you ask them, Epcor will tell you if you have a lead service line, test your tap water for lead and replace the city-owned side of the service line, spokesperson Josh Kerychuk said in an email.


Tell us your story: Have you had to deal with lead in your water or your pipes? We want to talk to you.

Note: We may use what you send us in this or future stories and we’ll give you a shout if we have questions. But we won’t publish your name without your permission.

Report an error


Global News