The Quebec government has announced a plan to crack down on drinking water contaminated with lead.
In the wake of a series of investigative reports produced by Global News, Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism and Le Devoir, three Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) cabinet ministers held a joint press conference Wednesday morning, announcing several changes, including a new safety limit to match federal guidelines from Health Canada.
They also attempted to reassure the public that Quebec’s drinking water was safe.
“The water is clean to drink in Quebec,” insisted Andrée Laforest, the municipal affairs minister.
Quebec has been using a regulation that allows municipalities to flush taps for five minutes before testing the water. It is the only province to use this method.
But using a different testing method recommended by Health Canada to measure actual levels of exposure, independent lab tests, commissioned by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, revealed lead levels in Quebec cities that in some cases were up to 28 times higher than the federal recommendation. These levels were higher, in a lot of cases, because they were including water samples that had been sitting stagnant in lead pipes overnight.
On Wednesday, the CAQ ministers announced the government would put an end to this practice of flushing taps before getting samples.
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“(It) will be with the first drop, the beginning of the flow and after a 30 minute period of stagnation,” Carmant explained.
The City of Montreal has also revealed its plan to test for lead and replace lead service pipes. The province wants all Quebec municipalities to do the same kind of mapping of at-risk areas and come up with their own action plans.
“Up until now they have been testing water randomly up at different time points and now we want a complete map of the zones that are at risk,” Carmant said.
“People who live in a neighbourhood where the houses have water pipes that were built before 1980. And especially those built between 1940 and 1955.”
The Quebec government also announced that it would be imposing a new limit on acceptable lead levels in water of five parts per billion. This brings Quebec in line with new federal guidelines introduced by Health Canada earlier in 2019.
Where levels are higher, Quebec says municipalities will have to come up with a plan to replace those lead service pipes. Private owners could be on the hook to pay for it.
The province says it doesn’t yet know the scope of the problem and it has no timeline for when the testing must be completed.
The second opposition party Québec Solidaire expressed concerns about whether the government’s plan goes far enough.
“I want to know if there is lead in the school of the children in my neighbourhood. I want to know if there’s lead everywhere and that information will be reassuring,” said Québec Solidaire MNA Sol Zanetti. “Right now, those words are insufficient.”
Zanetti said the province also needs to come up with a plan to assist people who cannot afford to replace their pipes.
“If everybody who doesn’t have enough money to change their plumbing has to drink lead, it’s not fair,” Zanetti said.