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


Matt and Mandy Pisarek learned they were drinking water from lead pipes by accident.

They’d just moved into a beautiful old home in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood. It seemed perfect — newly renovated, big lot, basement tenant.

If they hadn’t called the city about water pressure problems, if Mandy’s pregnancy hadn’t made her husband “paranoid,” he says, they never would have discovered the lead.

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“[The city] said the pipes on the street were replaced in the ’70s, but the pipes going from their demarcation point to the house was still lead piping. And that was our responsibility to fix.”

Digging up the porch, the lawn, the interlocking brick walkway, replacing the lead pipes and putting everything back together again would have set the couple back $10,000. “We couldn’t even touch that. It was too expensive,” Pisarek said.

So he paid $350 for a water filtration system and spent a day drilling holes in their granite counter top installing it.

The Pisareks live in a different house now. Their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter is perfectly healthy, as far as they know.

But the lead situation and the city’s response left a bad taste in their mouths.

“It’s their responsibility to keep their citizens safe,” Pisarek said.

“What’s going on in Flint is a testament to how governments are not keeping pace with the degradation of their infrastructure. … It could happen here, as well.”

Your water, your problem — your cost to fix it

The overwhelmingly poor, predominantly black American community of Flint, MI., 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: Residents were getting their water from a polluted river as a money-saving stopgap measure. Authorities apparently under-tested or poorly tested that water, or ignored test results. Authorities failed to put anti-corrosive agents into the water, leading to the entirely predictable, eminently dangerous corrosion of lead pipes and leaching of lead into water destined for human consumption.

WATCH: Flint residents protest having to pay 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 Flint is hardly the only place with problematic pipes.

Tens of thousands of Canadians get their drinking water from lead pipes. You may not know whether you do. Your city probably 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.

And the health risks are real. 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 and your reproductive organs.

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

“The main concern for lead at levels seen today is for the brain development of infants and children under 6 years of age,” reads a statement attributed to Toronto’s Associate Medical Officer of Health, Howard Shapiro.

“The best-documented health effects are for intelligence and attention-related behaviours. This effects are subtle on an individual level but have important consequences over a population.”

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

When half-measures make things worse

The city doesn’t know which homes have lead pipes or how many there are in total, although there are about 34,000 city-owned connections.

“In general, lead water services are found in older parts of the City,” reads a statement attributed to Lawson Oates, Toronto Water’s director of business operations.

Single-family homes (or residential buildings with fewer than six units) built before the mid-1950s could have water service pipes made of lead; but lead was used to solder pipes together as recently as 1990. Lead could also be in “leaded-brass fixtures, such as faucets and valves. While passing through these pipes and fixtures, lead can be added to drinking water.”

When the city replaces lead water pipes, 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 cited evidence indicating this makes the water more dangerous for the people drinking it.

A Canadian Water Network report led by NSERC Industrial Chair in Drinking Water Michèle Prévost found replacing half of a lead service line can actually triple the amount of lead entering the water compared to a lead-only pipe.

“Partial replacement of [lead service lines] with copper pipe released about three times more lead than a 100% lead pipe,” PhD student Clément Cartier is quoted as saying at a 2011 conference.

Toronto’s proposed loan program, developed at city council’s behest, 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 fiascoes 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.

The city will give you a certified faucet filter if it replaces its half of your pipes, however, and low-income residents can get a $100 rebate if they buy a certified faucet filter themselves.

WATCH: Flint’s water woes

Leaden unknowns

Toronto first started testing for lead in 2007, at the province’s behest. It found lead concentrations high enough to warrant a special mitigation plan: 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 highest round, in 2008, found 52 per cent of the 100 private households tested (all of them in older parts of the city) had lead concentrations of more than 11µg/L.

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 to 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 break from testing its drinking water for lead, Toronto Water says. The city won’t resume provincially regulated lead tests until October 2017 “in order to allow for full conditioning of the lead service pipes with phosphate.”

In the meantime, the city has been collecting data from homeowners who ask for lead tests themselves. Lead concentration levels have dropped significantly — in 2011-13, 14.9 per cent of results were dangerously high, compared to 3.3 per cent in 2014-15. But so has the number of people volunteering for the tests — from 3,513 in 2014 to 986 the following year.

“In the non-regulated program, residents collect drinking water samples and it is unknown if sampling instructions were followed,” Toronto Water’s Lawson Oates said in a statement.

“The results may not be consistent and/or representative of actual levels in the field. Regulated lead sampling and testing, which will resume in October 2017, are the most representative.”

Problem pipes across Canada

Cities across the country face similar challenges.

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 — use a water filter or “drink bottled water.”

About 3,400 Edmonton homes have lead pipes, according to utility company Epcor. Epcor sends annual notifications to residents of homes with lead service lines. If you ask them, they’ll test your tap water for lead and replace the city-owned side of the service line, spokesperson Josh Kerychuk said in an email.

What worries Pisarek is how many families don’t know what they’re drinking — or can’t afford to fix it if they do.

“What about the neighbourhoods that are really old and people can’t afford to do that kind of work?” he said.

“Governments aren’t taking accountability for that: They’re leaving it up to the homeowner, which is an unnecessary burden.”

READ MORE: Edmonton woman warns of lead pipes after finding the toxin in her water

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.

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