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Calgary doesn’t know how many homes have lead pipes that could make water unsafe

WATCH: A national investigation into drinking water in Canada is revealing shocking levels of lead. As Blake Lough reports, the information from the City of Calgary has not been released — until now.

Monica Baehr was stunned when a journalist showed her test results revealing high levels of lead in the water at her home near downtown Calgary, where she’s lived for nearly 40 years.

The city has a list of about 550 addresses where it knows there is a lead pipe underground that connects the home to the city water mains. But Baehr’s home was not on their list. City officials told her they believed her pipe had some coating to prevent any lead from leaching.

“[The city] kept claiming that their water was fine. That it’s OK to drink tap water, we didn’t have to buy bottled water or anything like that,” said Baehr, who lives in West Hillhurst, an inner-city neighbourhood north of the Bow River.

Baehr’s home is among hundreds in Calgary that may have been unknowingly exposed to dangerous lead levels in their drinking water due to aging plumbing and infrastructure, a year-long investigation by a consortium of journalism schools and media outlets, including Global News and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, has found.

Journalism students from Mount Royal university collected five chemical tests that showed that her tap water exceeded Health Canada’s recommended guideline for the concentration of lead in water of five parts per billion (ppb). One test showed elevated lead levels reaching 19 ppb, nearly four times the federal accepted limit.

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“I’m surprised that it was as high as that,” she said. “I think it should be up to the city to notify people and do it in a proper way.”

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

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

The city says there could be other homes with lead pipes like Baehr’s that it hasn’t identified because it has incomplete records for underground pipes that are on the private side of property lines.

Apart from collecting samples at Baehr’s house, the journalism students took tap water samples from 17 other Calgary homes built between 1911 and 1968. All of the samples were then independently tested by an accredited lab.

Three of the homes, including Baehr’s, had at least one sample above the recommended limit. All three were built before 1949. The residents in the two other homes with high lead levels, like Baehr, said they were never informed by the city that they were at risk.

“So we can never absolutely guarantee anything in the data, and we always tell that to a customer too,” said Russ Dueck, senior asset planning engineer for the City of Calgary. “That’s why we always want to tell the customers that if you believe you have a lead coming up into your metre… absolutely to call us.”

The tap water samples collected in Calgary were among hundreds of tests commissioned by journalists across the country as part of a national investigation involving more than 120 journalists at universities and news organizations, including Star Calgary. The journalists used more than 700 Freedom of Information requests to create what is believed to be the largest nationwide collection of results from drinking water lead tests: almost 80,000 samples in 14 different cities.

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The investigation showed that Calgary officials have not followed expert advice to fast-track the total removal of lead service lines.

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

Calgary could replace all lead service lines feeding water to roughly 550 homes for an estimated $11 million, permanently eliminating the main source of lead and significantly reducing the risk of exposure to residents.

But to proceed would also require cooperation with homeowners, who would also have to pay thousands of dollars to replace the underground lead pipes on the private side of the property line.

Following this investigation, Montreal, which has tens of thousands of known lead service lines within the city limits, recently announced that it would replace tens of thousands of lead pipes on both sides of the property line and bill the homeowner for their portion of the work, giving them 15 years to pay the city back. Saskatoon previously introduced a similar portion that allows it to remove lead pipes from private property and pay for a portion of the costs.

Lead has been linked to hypertension, miscarriages and cardiovascular disease in adults. It poses an even greater risk to unborn babies and young children, who can suffer decreased cognitive performance and behavioural difficulties throughout their lives after exposure to lead.

There is no known safe threshold for lead exposure.

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

When dissolved in water, lead is colourless, odourless and tasteless and can only be detected through testing. Plumbing fixtures, including sink taps and lead-based solder (banned in 1986), contribute to elevated lead levels in drinking water.

The key threat in residential homes, however, is lead pipes carrying water into houses from city distribution lines. Experts agree the only reliable solution to the problem is removing those pipes.

Calgary city records show 551 homes, mostly built between 1939 and 1949 and clustered in older inner-city neighbourhoods such as Rosedale, Inglewood and Ramsay, are connected to a lead service line on the public side.

The city also estimates there could be between 500 to 1,000 households that have lead service lines on the private side of property lines.

“This is a very isolated group of customers that are impacted by this,” he said, referring to the total number of residents with lead service lines.

“For those that are impacted, we take it very seriously, and we have appropriate steps and measures in place to mitigate that health risk for them.”

Hundreds of homes may be at risk

The Bow River and Eau Claire area with the downtown skyline of Calgary (Mackenzie Lad/IIJ).
The Bow River and Eau Claire area with the downtown skyline of Calgary (Mackenzie Lad/IIJ). (CP PHOTO/Larry MacDougal)

Since 2008, the city has mailed letters to households with lead service lines on the public side and encourages residents to allow the city to test their tap water. However, the city has acknowledged participation in the program is low and often fails to sample the minimum number of households each year.

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“I understand the cost involved. I understand the work that needs to be done very clearly. I was involved in developing techniques for cheaper replacement so I know exactly what it means,” said Michele Prévost, an environmental scientist and engineering professor at Polytechnique Montréal.

“The fact of the matter is if you have 1,500 service lines you can actually solve this [in a year].”

WATCH: Investigation reveals dangerous lead levels in some Quebec drinking water

Between 2014 and 2018, the City of Calgary collected tap water from 490 homes, testing six samples from each residency, according to records obtained through a freedom of information request.

While the majority were below the federal guideline of five ppb, 40 per cent of the homes had at least one result higher than five ppb. The three highest results were 69.3 ppb, 76.4 ppb, and 82 ppb — which is 16 times higher than the acceptable limit.

If test results reveal lead levels above the federal guideline, the city verifies whether the lead service line falls on its side or the homeowners. If it’s on the city’s side, the line is replaced when lead concentration from a well-flushed sample or the average of four one-litre samples exceed the limit . If it’s on both sides, the city will only replace its portion when homeowners agree to have their side swapped out too — at their expense.

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Fusing two types of metal, such as lead and copper (which many older pipes are made of), can aggravate corrosion of the lead pipe and temporarily cause lead levels to spike. In 2017, Calgary stopped removing the public side of the lead service line if it resulted in a partial replacement and will only change its side if the homeowner agrees to change their side.

“We currently don’t do partial lead replacements due to industry best practice at this point in time,” said Dueck. “We need the homeowner to participate to replace their private side when we replace the public side.”

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

The cost, on average between $5,000 and $10,000, often deters homeowners from replacing their portion, with some opting for a cheaper alternative: a $100 rebate toward the purchase of a certified tap-mounted filter that removes most of the lead and a recommendation from the city to let their water run for at least two minutes before use.

“It’s a significant investment,” said Dueck. “Some customers have chosen to go with a filter instead to mitigate their lead. And in some cases… many of these homes are going to be torn down and infilled, so many customers wait for that to play out down the road.”

When the city rolled out its annual tap water sampling program in 2008, it mailed 3,314 letters targeting homes built between 1939 and 1949 regardless of whether the properties were serviced by a lead line. Only 595 homes were tested that year.

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The low participation rate helped convince the city that its database was fairly accurate and officials scaled back the mail out with as few as 118 letters sent in 2012. Few residents who receive the letter participate to have their water tested with the city often failing to collect samples from 100 properties each year as recommended by Health Canada.

According to Prévost, the engineering professor from Montreal, the best solution for residents is not to buy water, but to filter tap water using an NSF-53 certified water filter so that they can be sure the lead has been removed. Both Epcor and the City of Calgary offer water filters for residents.

But many residents in these cities are not aware about these incentives.

A marketing firm hired by the city in 2012 surveyed Calgarians about its program and concluded mailing a single letter annually to homeowners as “too passive and yielding low awareness.”

“Water services should consider other communication approaches including in-person, door hangers and telephone,” Researchworks Inc. stated in its report. “If the approach must be mail, consider re-designing the mail-out to include multiple mailings and be more attention-getting in terms of overall look.”

By 2018, city bureaucrats seemed to concede the program was inadequate and extended the mail out to include landlords and, a year later, property owners where the city had replaced the public side of the lead line after 2008.

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“Our goal by inviting these individuals is to flag potential risks to homeowners, such as private side lead services, and increase our number of annual samples,” officials noted in the 2018 lead service summary to council.

READ MORE: Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante will require households to replace lead water pipes

Since the city does not test homes that are not known to have lead service lines, it is impossible to determine exactly how many other residents may be exposed to elevated levels of lead.

Lead pipes were considered acceptable material for use in new construction under the national plumbing code until it was amended in 1975. About 50,000 Calgary homes were built before 1960, but the city says its own analysis shows only a fraction of these might have lead pipes.

“Based on the excavations in the field, and both the testing that we’ve done in working with homeowners, it’s very rare to find a lead service beyond those target years (1939 to 1949),” said Dueck. “It’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it is very rare.”

A few hundred kilometres to the north in Edmonton, utility company EPCOR, believes the problem of lead in tap water may extend to a lot more homes due to plumbing components that contain the neurotoxin.

“The biggest challenge to meeting the new (Health Canada) guideline is that a customer’s private in-house plumbing, including old solder and brass plumbing fixtures, can leach lead into drinking water,” the company told Global News and the other media partners in an email. “Lead-containing household plumbing fixtures are still available for sale in Edmonton, so even newer homes may have issues.”

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EPCOR conducts hundreds of tests in homes without lead service lines regardless of when the building was constructed. Between 2015 and 2018, the utility found 10 per cent of homes had lead levels exceeding five ppb.

“We were quite surprised by that,” said Steve Craik, the company’s spokesperson.

“We weren’t really expecting that we’d find that.”

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In September, the Alberta government introduced new provincial guidelines for utilities to assess lead hazards, address the risk of exposure, and develop monitoring programs to identify elevated lead levels in drinking water at the customer’s tap.

The provincial guidelines state “poor construction practices may have resulted in the installation of lead pipes after 1975 and in-fill construction may have used the existing LSL instead of installing a non-lead service line.”

Further, existing records of public-side lead service lines may be “non-existent or incomplete” while records of lines on the private side “are even less likely to be available” because most were installed over 40 years ago.

Dueck said the city is assessing its strategy to conform with federal and provincial guidelines, but couldn’t provide specifics until the review is complete.

He also said the city was open to proactively sharing more information about its sampling results by posting it online.

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“So there’s no doubt that we’re looking to ways to share our information, in ways that don’t compromise private and personal information, but also recognizing that yes, we do want to share this information, make it more readily available for customers who feel that they might be impacted,” Dueck said.

“So, I can assure you that going forward to 2020 we are revisiting that, and what would be published on our website or through the City of Calgary’s open data source. I can assure you, we’ve had those conversations already with the open data folks.”

More testing needed

Experts like Prévost say Calgary should conduct more widespread testing, even in homes without lead service lines, to determine whether old brass faucet and lead solder (which was banned in 1986) are contributing to elevated lead levels at the tap.

“The only way to find out if it’s a small problem … is to go out and measure it,” said Prévost. “Ethically, you would want to know.”

Marc Edwards, a water treatment expert from Virginia Tech University who helped expose unsafe lead levels in Flint, Michigan, said the lack of records detailing the location of lead service lines, particularly those on private property, is one of the biggest problems cities face and poses a serious health risk.

“If you don’t know where these lead pipes are, you almost have to assume that everyone does have a lead pipe,” Edwards said.

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“It’s unfortunate, but it’s also the reality.”

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City records show that the public side of the underground service line of Baehr’s home, built in 1947, is copper and installed in December 1946. The portion of the service line on Baehr’s side, however, was lead.

It has a distinct dull grey colour and easily scratches.

Monica Baehr uses a Zero Water filter for drinking water at her home in Calgary, Alta. (Mackenzie Lad/IIJ)
Monica Baehr uses a Zero Water filter for drinking water at her home in Calgary, Alta. (Mackenzie Lad/IIJ) (Mackenzie Lad/IIJ)

Baehr said the city repeatedly assured her their tap water was safe because the pipe was lined (possibly with a ceramic material, she recalled) to prevent corrosion.

“Over the years, we would hear those assurances and I just basically went with that,” she said.

Calgary homeowners on the hook

After the journalism students from Mount Royal University told her about her tap water test results in January, Baehr paid a plumber $8,000 to replace the lead line on their side. A subsequent test of her water, after the new line was installed, show lead levels had plummeted to 2.3 ppb. The city also tested her water after the line was replaced and confirmed with Star Calgary the result was below five ppb.

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“I understand that your house is your responsibility,” said Baehr.

“I’m not actually expecting the city to replace the pipes for us … However, I think maybe there could be a program to subsidize that because health is a public concern.”

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While Calgary offers no subsidy, other cities like Saskatoon and Ottawa provide rebates and repayment plans for homeowners to help blunt the cost. In Edmonton, EPCOR has proposed paying the cost of replacing the private portion of lead lines any time it replaces its side.

Requiring homeowners to carry the financial burden can be a deterrent for some homeowners and a “roadblock to replacement of the public-side LSL” which poses a “continued risk of exposure for the occupants,” according to Alberta’s new lead guidance document.

The province recommends utilities consider incorporating the cost of full lead service line replacement (public and private) and build the expense into overall cost for operations and maintenance.

In its 2018 summary to council, bureaucrats note both private and public lead service lines at the same time would be “more cost-effective,” but the city doesn’t have a “program in place to allow for full-service replacement and cost recovery from the private landowner.”

A 2014 study by researchers from the City of Calgary, EPCOR, Swansea University and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, suggested Calgary could completely remove lead pipes for an estimated $10 million.

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This point was highlighted in a November 2015 memo addressed to former city manager Jeff Fielding, with top officials in the city’s water department noting: “The most cost-effective approach for Calgary will be to accelerate total lead pipe replacement as a permanent solution.”

Dueck pegs the figure closer $11 million. But any decision by the city to replace lead service lines on private property would require discussions with the province and council to ensure “utility rates are fair in how we recoup that money.”

The same 2015 memo, released to a Mount Royal University journalism student through freedom of information legislation, indicated that the city didn’t have complete records of the number of lead service lines it had replaced in 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2013, under its tap water sampling program. But the officials who wrote the memo told Fielding, the city manager at the time, that Calgary had since made improvements “to allow better tracking” of what the city was replacing.

When asked about the missing information, the city said in a statement that it had always tracked replacements on public property, but it wasn’t able to determine whether some replacements were specifically part of the tap water sampling program.

The city also said that this missing information had no impact on its estimates of the remaining lead pipes on public property.

Additional credits:

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Investigative Reporters:

Karina Zapata, Stephanie Hagenaars

Faculty Supervisor:

Janice Paskey

Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University:

Series Producer: Patti Sonntag

Research Coordinator: Michael Wrobel

Project Coordinator: Colleen Kimmett

Investigative Reporting Fellow: Alannah Page

Mount Royal University, Journalism Program

Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University

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