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Thousands of Nova Scotians at risk of lead exposure from wells

WATCH: In rural, Nova Scotia communities like Hackett's Cove, East Jeddore and Terence Bay, you’ll find lobster traps by fishing boats, scenic views of the Atlantic Ocean, and as Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, lead in the drinking water.

Darlene Arnold shifts uncomfortably in her seat as she takes off her reading glasses. 

In her hands, she holds the results from chemical tests of the tap water in her home in East Jeddore, a small fishing village less than an hour’s drive east of Halifax. 

Three samples were taken from the kitchen faucet this summer. All three contained potentially dangerous levels of lead. 

The secrets of Canada’s tap water, explained
The secrets of Canada’s tap water, explained

READ MORE: Thousands of test results show high lead levels across the country

She’s been unknowingly feeding her family with food washed and cooked in contaminated water.

“Probably explains why I got high blood pressure now. Holy smokes,” the 59-year-old utters in disbelief, viewing the results with reporters for the very first time. 

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Lead is a neurotoxin associated with increased incidence of high blood pressure, renal dysfunction, decreased cognitive performance and other complications. It’s particularly dangerous for children, linked to ADHD, lowered IQ and developmental disorders. 

Like roughly 440,000 Nova Scotians — nearly half the province’s residents — Arnold draws her tap water from a well. The lead in her water isn’t unique either. Sampling data collected as part of a national investigation by media outlets and universities across Canada — including Global News, Star Halifax and the University of King’s College — reveals hundreds of thousands of Canadians are exposed to lead in their tap water.

In Nova Scotia, the findings reveal widespread, and sometimes dramatic, exceedances of lead amid lax government oversight of private well water and a lack of public awareness about the health risks.

Darlene Arnold fills a pot from the tap in her kitchen at home in East Jeddore, N.S. on July 24, 2019.
Darlene Arnold fills a pot from the tap in her kitchen at home in East Jeddore, N.S. on July 24, 2019. Zane Woodford / Star Halifax

According to the World Health Organization, there’s no level of lead that’s safe for human consumption. Health Canada identifies 5 parts per billion (ppb) as its maximum acceptable concentration in drinking water, recognizing that “health effects of lead may occur even at low concentrations.”

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Arnold’s well water contained lead levels above that guideline, as high as 7.1 ppb. In July, she took three samples from her tap — the first right after the water had been stagnant in the pipes overnight, and the other two after the water had been allowed to run for 45 seconds and two minutes, respectively. 

The investigation had those samples tested at a lab in Bedford, N.S. Lead levels above the federal guideline — 6.0, 6.8 and 7.1 ppb — were detected across all three samples.

READ MORE: Quebec to review how it tests drinking water following investigative report

Arnold and her family haven’t been drinking the water due to a salty taste born of dredging in the nearby harbour. They’ve been cooking with it instead, unaware that boiling lead-contaminated water actually causes the lead to become more concentrated, and therefore dangerous.

Arnold’s concerned about her six-year-old grandson, Bentley, whom she cares for in the very same house she grew up in. 

From potatoes to pasta, “everything I cook goes in that water,” she told reporters nervously. “I’ve got a baby here, a child.”

Three out of six tests at Arnold’s neighbours’ houses also revealed elevated lead levels, reaching as high at 14 ppb, or nearly three times the Health Canada standard. 

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‘There is no safe level of lead’ for children: Pediatrician
‘There is no safe level of lead’ for children: Pediatrician

For the past year, reporters in this investigation have reviewed more than 79,000 water tests in 33 cities across the country. The findings reveal that hundreds of thousands of Canadians could have been unwittingly exposed to lead — some, in concentrations higher than those at the peak of the water crisis in Flint, Mich. 

In Nova Scotia, nine of 26 tests from homes on wells, taken from kitchen taps in places like Terence Bay and Hackett’s Cove, measured lead levels at or above the federal guideline of 5 ppb. One sample measured a level of 80 ppb — 16 times Health Canada’s standard. 

READ MORE: Edmonton residents exposed to high lead levels in water over last decade, investigation finds

Frederick Slaunwhite, 78, has periodically tested the water from his tap in Terence Bay and has never found any contaminants. But this summer, tests conducted for the investigation found lead levels in his water as high as 12 ppb, more than double Canada’s limit. 

He drinks from the tap in his refrigerator and boils the water for tea, but told reporters he’d stop immediately, and buy bottled water until he could install a filtering system for lead. 

“It’s a wonder that (the province isn’t) bringing something in, a clause in — that they’re testing,” said Slaunwhite, his own test results on the kitchen table beside him. 

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“You need water to live. It’s a wonder they don’t do it, but they haven’t.”

Frederick Slaunwhite’s tap water at home in Terence Bay, N.S., tested positive for lead levels above Health Canada’s limit. He’s seen here outside his house on July 31, 2019.
Frederick Slaunwhite’s tap water at home in Terence Bay, N.S., tested positive for lead levels above Health Canada’s limit. He’s seen here outside his house on July 31, 2019. Zane Woodford / Star Halifax

Widespread lead in Nova Scotia?

Several experts reviewed the investigation’s results in Nova Scotia and agreed they’re cause for concern.

Benjamin Trueman, a postdoctoral researcher with Dalhousie University’s Centre for Water Studies, said a number of them indicate “children and pregnant women shouldn’t be consuming the water.”

“There’s certainly enough evidence here that I think monitoring should be more widespread. I say that without pause.”

I’m shocked’: Lead control expert says there needs to be more transparency in Canada
I’m shocked’: Lead control expert says there needs to be more transparency in Canada

Michèle Prévost, an environmental scientist and engineering professor at Polytechnique Montréal, also scanned the numbers and cautioned against cooking with the water. 

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“Lead sticks to food like crazy,” she said. “You could get a big chunk of lead in spaghetti or rice.”

This investigation’s test results, however, don’t capture the scale or intensity of lead exposure in Nova Scotia. 

There are about 200,000 private wells in the province, representing more than 440,000 people, and in 2017, researchers in Vancouver and Halifax found that 2.7 per cent of wells across Nova Scotia contained lead levels above 10 ppb — the old Health Canada guideline.

Those results come from flushed tests, where the tap runs for 10 minutes before a sample is taken. But the article notes, as this investigation has found, that “this technique may artificially lower lead levels compared to water that has not been flushed.”

READ MORE: Dangerous lead levels found in drinking water of hundreds of Calgary homes, investigation finds

In March, a report released by the provincial government also identified lead exposure in private wells as “a significant public health concern,” with roughly 56 per cent of the province’s private well users relying on aquifers “associated with a high potential for corrosive groundwater.”

Corrosive water, which is naturally occurring, causes materials to dissolve on contact, so lead and other chemicals present in plumbing materials can leach into the water supply. Even “lead-free” plumbing can contain trace amounts of lead, and corrosive water can draw that lead out into the water.

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Altogether, it means those 56 per cent of Nova Scotia’s private wells at risk — 111,100 wells, or as many as 247,000 people — have a “higher likelihood of lead concentrations” in their water. 

READ MORE: Charges dropped in Flint water crisis after three-year probe

The issue was flagged more than 30 years ago in the small community of Hackett’s Cove, a short drive west of Halifax. 

In 1985, a team led by Dalhousie University researcher Odilia Maessen found that 29 per cent of homes there that depended on private wells had lead levels in their drinking water exceeding 50 ppb — the national guideline at the time, and 10 times the guideline of today. 

Little has changed in that coastal community since then. 

Four of 11 homes tested in Hackett’s Cove by this investigation had levels above 5 ppb, including the sample that measured 80 ppb. 

“I’m not surprised at all,” said Gavin Kennedy, a provincial government hydrogeologist. “That is where I would predict there to be very corrosive water and… therefore more risk of lead being leached from plumbing materials.”

Kennedy, who wrote the report finding 56 per cent of private wells were at risk, has developed a map of corrosive water that allows users to get a corrosive water risk score for their property. The high-risk area covers nearly the entire Atlantic coast of the province and parts of Cape Breton.

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“It’s something that on the municipal side of things is pretty well covered, because it’s managed by the utilities. But for private well water supplies, there’s no one really tracking that, or managing the risk there,” Kennedy said.

No requirement to test for lead

The province recommends Nova Scotians on wells have their water tested for bacteria every six months, and for chemicals, including lead, every two years. But compliance isn’t mandatory, and the associated costs are borne by the homeowner.

Corrosive water can be treated with treatment systems ranging from $1,000 to $1,500. Many well owners, however, are simply unaware their water may be corrosive, or unaware of the need to test for lead at all. 

Plumber and Nova Scotia Community College instructor Jarrod Brown said that in his experience, homeowners test their water “very seldom, if at all.”

“It’s just one of those things that people seem to forget about,” Brown said. “Water is something that we really take for granted.”

A 2014 survey found that only 12 per cent of respondents were following the province’s guidelines for chemical testing.

Nova Scotia Environment Minister Gordon Wilson said he takes the issue “very seriously,” but the provincial government’s responsibility ends at raising awareness.

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“For people that do not have water that is acceptable that meets the guidelines, I encourage them to take the responsibility to upgrade and to do the remediation work that they would need to do to fix that,” Wilson said in an interview.

“The big part that we play is in education and raising awareness.”

Nova Scotia Environment Minister Gordon Wilson at Province House in Halifax, N.S., on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019.
Nova Scotia Environment Minister Gordon Wilson at Province House in Halifax, N.S., on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. Zane Woodford / Star Halifax

The Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) expanded its testing services this year, announcing that all Nova Scotians can bring well-water samples to the provincial health authority for chemical and bacterial testing. But the NSHA only includes arsenic and uranium in their basic chemical analysis package for about $30. Lead is included in the $50 package and two more packages over $100.

Kennedy is hopeful the changes in testing accessibility made by NSHA earlier this year will encourage more homeowners to test. But he believes more needs to be done.

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“Certainly we could do a better job of getting bottles into communities so they’re more accessible,” Kennedy said. “There are always things that we can be looking at to make that easier.”

Wilson said the government is not specifically targeting communities known to have corrosive water.

To get more people to test, Prévost recommended stepping up public education and subsidizing testing in Nova Scotia. In Alberta, for example, water testing for homeowners on wells is free.

Wilson said the government is not considering making water testing free because it found that such a program would cost between $30 and $40 million per year. 

“I’m not saying $30 to $40 million is too much,” he said. “I’m saying at this point in time, the responsibility is with the homeowner. Same as keeping the roof from leaking on your home, it’s important to keep your water system safe.”

Arnold chalks it up to a difference in services for rural and urban Nova Scotians.

“We’re just not looked after the way they are in the city,” she said. “They might have to pay for their water, but they always have it.”

 

Additional credits

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Faculty Supervisor: Pauline Dakin

 

Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University

Series Producer: Patti Sonntag

Research Coordinator: Michael Wrobel

Project Coordinator: Colleen Kimmett

Investigative Reporting Fellow: Lyndsay Armstrong

 

University of King’s College, School of Journalism

 

Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University

See the full list of “Tainted Water” series credits here: concordia.ca/watercredits