Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante is promising some bold action to tackle a drinking water crisis that is sweeping Quebec, in the wake of an investigative news report that casts doubt about the accuracy of sampling tests of lead levels coming out of taps across the province.
Responding to the investigation by Global News, Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism and Le Devoir, Plante said in an interview that her administration plans to aggressively test the drinking water for lead in more than 100,000 homes over the next three years.
She also said that the city would accelerate its replacement of the lead-lined pipes, known as lead service lines, that connect many of these homes to the city’s main water distribution network.
The issue largely affects older homes and apartment buildings with fewer than eight dwellings. There are potentially up to 300,000 people in the city who live in these types of homes, according to the local public health agency.
Until now, the city has not been forcing local property owners to change the pipes on their property when it goes in to remove a lead service line.
But Plante said the city was poised to start unilaterally changing lead pipes on private property and billing households over 15 years. These replacements could cost several thousand dollars for each home.
Plante also promised to offer additional support to homeowners, including the launch of a new website that will allow residents to search for information about lead pipes in their neighbourhood, as well as incentives such as free water pitchers and filters for potentially affected households.
It was not immediately clear how much the plan would cost or how it would be implemented as Plante said Montreal was still working on details to resolve a problem that successive administrations at city hall have known about for more than a decade.
Plante and the city’s director of water services, Chantal Morrisette, sat down for the interview at city hall on Monday, several days after Global News sent the mayor’s office an analysis by the Institute for Investigative Journalism of the city’s internal data.
The analysis revealed high lead levels across multiple Montreal neighbourhoods and boroughs.
The interview also came less than a week after Global News reported that many residents across Quebec could be getting misleading information from municipal workers about whether their water was safe.
The investigation revealed that Quebec is requiring municipalities to use an outdated testing method that requires them to flush taps for five minutes prior to taking water samples. This method usually lowers the amount of lead detected since it won’t capture lead contamination in water that has been stagnant in pipes for an extended period of time.
As a result, the testing method fails to identify a household’s maximum exposure to lead.
Quebec Premier François Legault said his government would be reviewing this method in response to the revelations made by Global News and its partners in the investigation. Plante said in the interview that the city intends to improve how it provides information to households.
The province is also slated to update its regulations before March 2020.
But despite using the outdated testing method, Montreal is still obtaining high lead levels. The average in its flushed tests measured 5.3 parts per billion (ppb) in 2018, according to municipal data released through freedom of information legislation. Earlier this year, Health Canada revised the federal government’s recommended limit of lead in drinking water, lowering it from 10 to five ppb.
Overall, in Montreal, the investigation reviewed thousands of pages of internal documents and about 51,000 drinking water sampling results from 25,000 Montreal households between 2004 and 2018.
In addition, the city’s health authority estimated that more than 300,000 people are delivered water through lead service lines and may be exposed to elevated lead levels.
Surveys conducted by journalists indicated that city technicians were providing misleading statements to the public about dangerous levels of lead in tap water, informing residents that their water was safe, even though independent lab tests commissioned by the media partners had revealed more alarming results in 13 out of 23 households.
Over 15 years, lead test results in Montreal, using the method that requires flushing the taps, revealed that there were more than 9,000 exceedances, including lead levels of 72 ppb in a 1928 two-storey row house in Ahuntsic, 60 ppb in a classic wartime home in Rosemont and 54 ppb in a mid-century bungalow in Nouveau-Bordeaux — all well above the current federal guideline.
But none of this information has been made public until now.
Even the mayor admitted that she only recently discovered that her own home, a triplex where she is also a landlord, was “probably” getting water that is going through lead pipes, like others on her street in Montreal’s Rosemont neighbourhood.
“I am a landlady as well,” Plante said. “It’s been interesting going through this and thinking: ‘okay, I’ve been there for many years and I was not that landlord who did communicate that with my tenants because I didn’t really know, or I wasn’t aware the same way.
Plante isn’t the only one who hasn’t gotten a clear picture about the state of their drinking water.
In a renovated duplex in the NDG neighbourhood, city workers had measured 12 ppb, and the consortium of journalists measured 109 ppb. This result is nearly 22 times higher than Health Canada’s new recommended safety limit.
In one home in Vieux-Rosemont, where the city had found only two ppb of lead in the water, the consortium found 12 ppb.
Discrepancies such as these may have been due to the city’s testing methods, set by the province, which require the flushing of taps.
Scientists from around the world widely accept that there is no safe level of lead for human consumption. Health Canada has warned that lead is linked to numerous health problems, including high blood pressure and kidney problems in adults, as well as complications in pregnancy and behavioural disorders or a loss of IQ in children.
Stephanie St. Onge, 46, has lived in the same home in Montreal’s west-end NDG neighbourhood all her life, but only learned in recent months that her tap water contained lead.
She also has three children living in the home.
Her father, who also lived in the home since the 1970s and died of cancer last year, had high blood pressure.
Lisa-Marie Noël, 41, was hospitalized and forced to take medication for high blood pressure when she was pregnant with her two children and her partner David Bruneau, 45, was recently diagnosed with high blood pressure. Both have lived in the same home with a lead service line in Montreal’s Rosemont neighbourhood for about a decade.
St. Onge was surprised to see that an independent lab test of a sample of her own tap water revealed that it had 16 ppb of lead, nearly three times more than the six parts per billion measured by a test conducted by the city.
“Well that’s a big difference from what the city gave us,” said St. Onge in an interview after Global News handed her the results of lab tests commissioned by the consortium.
St. Onge and Noël also both consumed tap water in their homes during their pregnancies and they also both gave their children formula using tap water.
Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who has treated patients in Flint, Michigan, which faced a drinking water crisis in 2015, said it’s difficult to directly link specific illnesses to lead exposure. But she also said that the science has been clear for years that lead can cause harm to human health in many different ways.
“There’s a great book called ‘Lead Wars’ and in that book they actually call lead a ‘multi-headed hydra’ because wherever you turn, there is another bad thing that lead is now associated with,’” Hanna-Attisha told Global News.
“So you name it, and lead probably contributes to that condition. So children exposed to lead will have higher rates of heart disease, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, early dementia, gout, anemia. I mean, the list goes on of what childhood exposure to lead can cause later in life.”
For Bruneau and Noël, a lab test commissioned by the media consortium found a sample of water in their home that had nine parts per billion of lead.
“I was drinking water during both of my pregnancies in this house,” Noël told Global News. “During my first pregnancy I had hypertension. I have no idea if it was related or not but I was hospitalized and given medication.
“During my second pregnancy, I had a bit of hypertension towards the end. We really used the water then without thinking about it.”
The City of Montreal has known for more than 15 years that residents are getting drinking water that has dangerous levels of lead.
The city first uncovered its lead problem in 2006 when it estimated that there were 79,000 lead service lines across the island. Although it pledged to replace all of them by 2026, it has only replaced about 20,000 and was on pace to miss its deadline by at least four years.
These numbers appear to contradict Mayor Plante’s office, who said as recently as July that Montreal is accelerating efforts to replace lead service lines on its territory by 2026, as part of a plan that it says is amongst the most ambitious in Canada.
But in the meantime, the city could address the problem by treating its water with a non-toxic substance to control corrosion, as many other cities in North America are doing, according to an internal document. A city engineer said in an internal 2013 presentation that it could reduce lead levels in drinking water across the city within a month of beginning a treatment plan that would cost between $1 million to $4 million per year.
The presentation said that the city got earlier warnings about unacceptable levels of lead in water in 2004, when a homeowner in the northwest suburb of Saint-Laurent had the water tested in her wartime-era home.
The results prompted the city to sample the water of 32 other single-family houses built in the area in the 1940s. Workers found that 69 per cent had lead levels in flushed samples above the provincial standard of 10 ppb.
The following year, the city uncovered similar results in wartime houses, but also found that 45 per cent of homes constructed before 1970 had lead levels in their tap water above 10 ppb, affecting more than 200,000 Montrealers.
The City of Montreal first made its pledge to remove all city-owned lead-service lines by 2026 in 2006. At that time, it estimated that this would cost $270 million to remove 69,000 lead service lines across the city. Local officials also estimate that there are another 10,000 lead service lines in older on-island suburbs like Côte Saint-Luc, Hampstead, Westmount and Montreal-West.
In the meantime, Plante maintains that Montreal’s water is safe.
“I do drink the water because again, it’s very good quality,” she said. “People need to make that distinction.
“The water is excellent in Montreal. Now we need to make sure that this water is not being influenced because of the condition of the pipes.”
Mike De Souza and Dan Spector, Global News
Ian Down, Michael Wrobel — Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University
Investigative reporting team, Concordia University:
Mia Anhoury, James Betz-Gray, Matthew Coyte, Miriam Lafontaine, Franca Mignacca, Lea Sabbah, Brigitte Tousignant, Ayrton Wakfer
Contributing reporters, Concordia University:
Michael Bramadat-Willcock, Thomas Delbano, Elaine Genest, Adrian Knowler, Mackenzie Lad, Benjamin Languay, Jon Milton, Katelyn Thomas
Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University:
Series Producer and Faculty Supervisor: Patti Sonntag
Project Coordinator: Colleen Kimmett
Editorial assistant: Fabio Luis Leon-Rosa
Production team, Le Devoir:
Project editor: Veronique Chagnon
Intern: Lea Sabbah
Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University