Some Edmontonians have been drinking tap water with lead levels as high as 120 times the federal health guideline over the last 11 years, according to data obtained for the first time.
The full scope of lead levels in the city has never been revealed because test results are not publicly available, which has prompted red flags from experts about the implications for public health.
Lead test data obtained from EPCOR, Edmonton’s private water utility, reveals lead levels in Edmonton houses exceeding the current federal safety guideline of five parts per billion (ppb) every year since 2008.
While most fell below the guideline, the highest results include a reading of 594 ppb in 2008; 241 ppb in 2014; and 428 ppb in 2017.
Since 2014, 30 per cent those lead tests exceeded federal guidelines when using testing methods properly designed to measure exposure, the investigation found. Isolating houses with lead lines, the exceedance rate rises to nearly 60 per cent.
But the data also shows a curiosity: health risks from lead aren’t isolated to houses with lead service lines. Approximately 10 per cent of homes without lead lines tested higher than the federal guideline.
The data was obtained as part of a year-long national investigation into drinking water by Global News, MacEwan University, Star Edmonton, and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism.
Marc Edwards, a water treatment expert from Virginia Tech University who helped raise red flags about the Flint, Michigan, water crisis in 2015, said the triple-digit lead levels found in some Edmonton homes could elevate a child’s blood lead level.
“I think this decision to not be forthcoming about the higher lead in water levels that were actually measured is counterproductive, because that could be you, that could be your house, that could be your child drinking that water,” he said.
EPCOR estimates 4,450 Edmonton houses have private lead lines and another 23,000 exceed guidelines because of lead plumbing or fixtures.
Steve Craik, EPCOR’s Director of Quality Assurance and Environment, said customers are always notified of a lead test result, whether it’s “good, bad or ugly.”
EPCOR’s annual reports do not include raw data such as the highest lead exceedances or where they were found. High lead test results are disclosed to homeowners but they are not released to the general public or residents living nearby.
Craik said that’s partly because every neighbourhood has a mixture of plumbing materials that deliver water to homes and because test results can vary for a number of reasons. Craik also said that EPCOR provides information about lead on its website and a designated phone line.
Exposure to lead, a neurotoxin that can leach from pipes and plumbing into tap water, has been linked to hypertension, miscarriages and cardiovascular disease in adults, along with intellectual disabilities and in children.
Concerns about lead prompted Health Canada to lower its guideline for acceptable lead levels in water in March, from 10 ppb to five ppb.
“We try to act as though there are safe levels of toxic chemicals, whether it’s air pollution or lead,” said Bruce Lanphear, a professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University.
“The evidence would suggest there are no safe levels.”
Craik said Alberta Environment and Parks, the ministry responsible for water safety, has never requested the utility’s raw data and EPCOR has not shared it with them.
He told reporters in June that EPCOR believed that access to the data should be restricted because he believed it may be “misinterpreted” and that people wouldn’t “understand what all the numbers in all the columns actually mean.”
EPCOR eventually agreed to release the data to the Star and Global News, two months later.
In September, the provincial government introduced changes to how testing results are submitted to the province, requiring utilities to share their full datasets annually. Utilities are required to tell homeowners the test results.
While there is no requirement to share test results publicly, Josh Zarobiak, a spokesman for Alberta Environment, says they would be but details are being worked out.
“We expect AEP’s next step would be to specify how they want us to communicate these results and what specific data they would like,” EPCOR said in a statement.
“EPCOR will provide AEP the data requested in the format specified.”
In addition to the EPCOR data obtained by the investigation, student journalists conducted lead tests at 21 older homes in Edmonton over the past six months using a method recommended by the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard University.
Nearly half of those results — 10 — returned from an accredited lab had lead levels above the recommended federal limit. One test registered as high as 48 ppb — nearly 10 times the federal threshold.
Michele Prévost, a leading lead researcher at engineering school Polytechnique Montreal, said monitoring needs to be transparent to the public.
“If the levels found in their house, if their house was sampled, are high or low, that’s just basic transparency so they can adjust their behaviour to reduce their risk if needed,” Prévost said.
The City of Toronto, as mandated by the Ontario government, posts data on lead and other contaminants collected from schools, residential taps and distribution systems. The addresses of private homes are removed, but residents can see at a postal code level what contaminants have been found in their neighbourhood and at what levels.
Craik acknowledged EPCOR could consider releasing information on a postal code level, similar to Toronto.
“I think we will always be open to looking at better ways of communicating to our customers,” he said.
EPCOR, a private utility owned solely by the City of Edmonton with operations across North America and billions in revenue, has been responsible for Edmonton water since 1996. Even so, EPCOR is exempt from Alberta’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and not obligated to disclose internal documents or data about its water quality.
It released data for this investigation in August, a couple of months after Craik had questioned whether people would be able to understand detailed test results.
Andrew Keddie has lived in his Inglewood house since the late 1990s, and he hadn’t been concerned about lead in his drinking water but agreed to a test out of curiosity. He said he had never received any type of notice from EPCOR about the quality of his drinking water and was not sure whether he had lead service lines.
When Keddie received his test results from samples taken by reporters, with the highest sample at 28 ppb, he was taken aback.
“That’s way more than I thought it was going to be,” he said.
“I’m concerned enough that we won’t be drinking and using this water … I don’t like this. It’s a little bit disturbing to see there’s that much.”
Keddie said he plans to act immediately to ensure there is clean water in his house moving forward.
The recently-retired university professor also said EPCOR’s testing data should be made public.
“It should be something that people are aware of everywhere in the city,” Keddie said.
In an email, EPCOR said that plumbing fixtures containing lead are still on sale in Edmonton and that this will cause newer homes to register results higher than the federal guideline.
EPCOR has replaced about 2,000 lead service lines since 2008.
In 2015, Edmonton resident Lee Anne Pedersen underwent a heavy metals test after treatments for her hypothyroidism failed to work.
Test results showed high levels of lead in her system; she asked EPCOR to test her water. It revealed lead levels of 21.8 ppb.
Pedersen spent more than $7,000 to replace the lead service lines from her property line to her house.
She was shocked to hear the range of results in the city and believes all lead levels should be shared with the public.
“I think EPCOR needs to be completely transparent when it comes to these numbers, and be honest with the citizens of Edmonton,” Pedersen said.
“I think it’s extremely important that the full range is being known so that people can make informed decisions about what they’re going to do about it.”
Ben Henderson, city councillor for Ward 8, which includes many older homes and showed some of the city’s highest results, said he is confident EPCOR has taken the proper steps to address high lead levels.
“EPCOR has an onus to us because of the performance based rates, to meet certain standards and to show when they’re offside,” Henderson said.
Currently, residents must pay to replace lead service lines on their property; EPCOR covers the cost up until the property line. EPCOR will soon pay to replace the private portion of lead lines any time it replaces the utility portion.
EPCOR plans to add orthophosphate to the water by the end of 2020 as a blanket solution to prevent lead leaching from pipes. Orthophosphate is used by cities such as Winnipeg, Detroit and Quebec City.
Typically added to drinking water in liquid form as phosphoric acid, orthophosphate works by reacting with lead to form an insoluble coating inside pipes and faucets.
EPCOR says the orthophosphate program will cost $44 million, and monthly water bills are expected to rise a maximum of $0.67 to cover the cost.
Craik said replacing all lead service lines across the city would cost an additional $14 million, but that option is not on the table for the utility.
Toronto added orthophosphate to its water in 2014. In the summer of 2009, testing showed lead levels averaged 6.1 ppb in homes suspected of having a lead service line. Last year, the city had an average lead level of 1.2 ppb.
In Edmonton, EPCOR expects orthophosphate to lower lead levels by at least 80 per cent within the first year.
Maya Abdallah, Keshia Bundred, Austin Connelly, Zoe Cronin, Derrick Ferry, Clint Hoekstra, Raysa Marcondes, Claire Okeke, Sarah Spisak, Molly Stogrin, Kiefer Sutherland, Ishita Verma
Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University:
Series producer: Patti Sonntag
Research coordinator: Michael Wrobel
Project coordinator: Colleen Kimmett
Practicum students: Cheyenne Juknies, Shaela Dansereau
Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University
See the full list of “Tainted Water” series credits here: concordia.ca/watercredits.