Investigation reveals dangerous lead levels in some Quebec drinking water

Click to play video: 'Quebec tainted water'
Quebec tainted water
How much lead is in YOUR tap water? A Global News, Le Devoir and Concordia University Institute for Investigative Journalism exclusive investigation has uncovered that Quebecers might be getting more than they bargained for in their tap water. Dan Spector reports. – Oct 16, 2019

This story was updated at 1:49 p.m. ET on Oct. 16, 2019 with new comments from the city of Laval.

Thousands of Quebecers could be getting misleading information about lead contamination in the water coming out of their taps because the province uses a sampling method that underestimates the true level of exposure, Global News has found through surveys and 84 tests of residential drinking water conducted in five cities across the province.

The revelations are based on a collaborative investigation by a team of two dozen journalists from Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, Global News and Le Devoir. The journalists fanned out across the province to knock on hundreds of doors, taking water samples for testing that revealed lead levels often higher than city workers had told residents.

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The testing commissioned by the journalists was checked against municipal sampling data that was released by the cities through freedom of information legislation.

Overall, the data released by the cities show that 96 Quebec municipalities with hundreds of thousands of residents recorded 466 samples in which lead levels exceeded the province’s current limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb) between 2015 and 2018.

But the amount of lead detected in each water sample would be even higher if the province used a better testing method, several engineering experts told Global News, after reviewing the independent test results.

Click to play video: 'Quebec children at risk of lead exposure through drinking water'
Quebec children at risk of lead exposure through drinking water

Quebec is the only province to flush the water out of taps for five minutes before taking a sample. This winds up producing a measurement that reduces the amount of lead in samples and fails to reflect the resident’s exposure to lead, the experts said.

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The federal government has recommended in new guidelines released in 2019 by Health Canada that provinces should not use this method to determine the actual risk to public health.

Quebec’s Environment Department has defended the practice, explaining that flushing the water allows municipalities to identify the buildings that are most at risk due to a lead service line that links them to water mains.

The department has also said its rules also require municipalities to return for additional testing when sampling results suggest there is lead in public infrastructure that needs to be removed.

Meantime, Quebec also says it is revising its rules and expects to update them in March 2020, in response to the latest federal recommendations.

Overall, 26 out of 40 residents who were present during city testing in their homes told Global News and its partners the officials didn’t properly inform them about their tap water test results or their significance.

In some cases, lab tests conducted for Global News and its partners show tap water that had levels of lead that were up to 28 times higher than the current safety limit recommended by the federal government, which now stands at a maximum of five ppb.

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This includes a household in Saguenay that was running a home daycare. The city measured lead levels from water in this home that were less than one part per billion, while an independent test conducted for Global News and its partners found lead levels of 60 ppb, which is 12 times above the recommended Health Canada limit.

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Global News cannot name the daycare since the Institute for Investigative Journalism approached members of the public under research guidelines that allow participants to decide whether or not to share their names and other personal information with the media.

Investigative reporters tested the water in nine homes in Gatineau, across the river from Ottawa, finding seven of them had lead levels that were higher than the numbers the city had recorded in statistics released through access to information legislation.

In seven homes where tests by Gatineau had measured lead levels in drinking water lower than 10 ppb, investigative reporters found elevated levels in five of them, including one result as high as 140 ppb. The average was 30 ppb. 

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Lead service lines were installed in Quebec up until the 1970s to connect municipal water distribution systems to single-family homes and some smaller apartment buildings with fewer than eight dwellings. Lead from these service lines can leach from pipes and into water.

In all buildings, lead can also leach from plumbing fixtures and solder — the filler used to joint pieces of pipe — into the water when it comes out of the tap.

The cities of Saguenay and Gatineau didn’t respond to questions on Tuesday about their testing methods.

Michèle Prévost, a civil engineering professor from Polytechnique Montréal who has advised municipalities around the world about their drinking water systems, said Quebec’s weak regulations are partly to blame for a system that puts people in danger.

“They’re either not doing the job or they’re fudging the numbers,” said Prévost in an interview. “That’s a really big scandal.”

The World Health Organization says there is no safe level of lead.

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International health experts say the neurotoxin produces a wide range of effects in adults, including high blood pressure and renal problems. Peer-reviewed scientific research also shows that lead can be especially harmful to infants, children and pregnant women, leading to behavioural problems and a loss in IQ.

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Jacques Mathurin, 60, a resident of Laval, north of Montreal, is among those who say they were once told their water was safe after testing by their municipality.

Mathurin’s wife, Carole Paquin, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a terminal illness also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a few years ago, and he himself has high blood pressure and suffered a heart attack which left him hospitalized for a week in November 2016.

The city tested his water in 2017, running the tap for five minutes before taking a sample.

Mathurin and Paquin never did this before consuming water in their household.

A few weeks after the city’s visit, he said the city told them the lead levels within their water was within safety guidelines. Their tap water showed a result of 4.6 parts per billion, well below Quebec’s provincial norm of 10 ppb.

A separate test taken by Global News and its partners revealed lead levels as high as 17 ppb in the first stream of water from his kitchen tap in the morning.

“That’s a huge difference with five,” said Mathurin after Global News showed him his test results. “It’s so discouraging. I’ll really have to stop drinking this water.”

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Paquin died in April.

A photo of Jacques Mathurin’s wife, Carole Paquin, who recently died after a battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Mackenzie Lad, Institute for Investigative Journalism

“She was someone who was healthy, she ate healthy food, and then (the illness) came on and bang. Just like that,” he told Global News in an interview. “It raises questions. Was it something that happened because of the lead? We don’t know.”

The City of Laval told Global News on Wednesday that it was following provincially-regulated testing methods when it obtained its first sample from Mathurin’s home in 2017. It also said that it returns to locations where lead has been detected, even when the levels are below the regulated limit, in order to determine whether the lead is coming from the pipes or internal plumbing in the home.

A Laval spokeswoman, Anne-Marie Braconnier, added that the city had returned to his home a few days earlier to retest his water, and at that moment, Mathurin shared the results obtained by the Institute for Investigative Journalism.

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She added that after its own retest, it was able to confirm that Mathurin’s water was tainted with lead coming from both his internal plumbing as well as from a lead service line.

“As per our policies, the city will replace the service line,” said Braconnier. “From there, it was recommended to Mr. Mathurin, as for all citizens where lead was detected, to use a pitcher with a filter or bottled water to minimize his exposure to lead, until the source of the lead is eliminated.”

It was not immediately clear why the city didn’t warn Mathurin after its first test detected lead in his drinking water in 2017.

Bruce Lanphear, a public health expert and professor at Simon Fraser University who has studied the effects of lead for years, said that it is difficult to directly link a specific illness with exposure to lead, but he noted that there’s some emerging research linking the neurotoxin to ALS.

He also said that research makes it clear that reducing lead exposure could reduce the incidence of a number of illnesses such as heart disease and therefore reduce health-care costs needed for treatment.

“So we have a number of studies and it’s by now definitive that lead increases hypertension, that’s established. In 2013, the U.S. EPA concluded that lead is a causal risk factor for coronary heart disease, which is the leading cause of death worldwide,” Lanphear told Global News. “We didn’t used to die from heart disease. Heart disease is a disease of industrialization, of tobacco, of air pollution, of lead.”

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Lead has been in the news in Quebec since the summer, when Global News and Le Devoir reported on an internal government study posted online in June, with little fanfare, warning that children were at risk from lead-contaminated water at daycares and schools across the province. The study’s authors also warned at the time that the province’s testing method, allowing water to flow for five minutes before taking a sample, was “very certainly” resulting in misleadingly low results.

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“Taking a (sample) after five minutes, it allows the detection of lead service lines, but it doesn’t tell you what people are consuming… It doesn’t reflect the level of the population’s exposure to lead,” said Patrick Levallois, a physician and public health expert at a provincial public health research institute.

Levallois and Prévost, along with Manuel Rodriguez, a civil engineering professor from Université Laval in Quebec City, all resigned scientific advisory positions on a provincial program that promotes tap water and discourages consumption of bottled drinks called Reach for Water, after the provincial government said last November that it didn’t want to fund a portion of the program that would allow for more water quality testing.

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The three scientists said in a Feb. 12, 2019, resignation letter, obtained by Global News, that the government’s decision was “difficult to justify” following a pilot project that showed there was a problem with the drinking water in schools.

A separate investigation published by Montreal daily newspaper La Presse on Oct. 8 confirmed the problem, prompting the provincial education minister to serve notice to schools and daycares across Quebec to increase testing to identify and target all of the lead-tainted faucets and fountains.

The reporting by Global News and its partners shows that the weaknesses in Quebec’s oversight put a wider swath of the population at risk in their own homes.

Caroline Robert, a director responsible for drinking water and groundwater at the Quebec Environment Department, noted there are several measures in Quebec’s policies and rules to crack down on the areas that present the greatest risks. 

As a result, she said that the public shouldn’t focus on its current practice of testing water after a five-minute flush.

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“Quebec is completely within the spirit of the efforts lead by Health Canada,” she told Global News and Le Devoir in an interview. “The first step is the five minute (flush), which just prioritizes the areas for follow up, based on risk. It’s an approach that we developed jointly with the (provincial) Health Department when we introduced the regulations.”

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She added that a municipality would be required to take additional actions to mitigate sources of lead if it obtained high lead levels in one of its samples.

But internal emails, released to Global News through freedom of information legislation, indicate that Robert expressed reservations about Health Canada’s proposed recommendations for improving testing methods, noting they would have a “major impact” on Quebec’s practices.

Robert told Global News that updating the Quebec rules was a complicated process involving consultations with multiple departments since it would have an impact on many different stakeholders.

Marc Edwards, an engineer who has advised multiple governments around the world about lead, told Global News in an interview that officials in the U.S. have known for 30 years that flushing taps is a bad way to test for lead. He said misinformation from government and utility officials is what has turned a manageable problem into a crisis in multiple American cities.

“The crisis is having high lead in your drinking water and being lied to and told your water’s safe when it’s not,” he said. “It’s a profound loss of trust in what your government, what your water supplier is telling you.”

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Story by:

Mike De Souza and Dan Spector — Global News

Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University

Le Devoir

Brigitte Tousignant, Ian Down, Miriam Lafontaine — Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University

Investigative reporting team, Concordia University:

Michael Bramadat-Willcock

Mia Anhoury, James Betz-Gray, Thomas Delbano, Elaine Genest, Adrian Knowler, Mackenzie Lad, Benjamin Languay, Franca Mignacca, Jon Milton, Matthew Coyte, Katelyn Thomas, Ayrton Wakfer

Production team, Le Devoir: 

Project editor: Veronique Chagnon

Reporters: Annabelle Caillou, Améli Pineda

Intern: Lea Sabbah

Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University:

Series producer and faculty supervisor: Patti Sonntag

Research coordinator: Michael Wrobel

Project coordinator: Colleen Kimmett

Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University


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