The demand comes in the wake of an investigation published by Global News and the Star Halifax, revealing nearly a quarter of a million Nova Scotians who rely on private wells are at risk of lead exposure.
Provincial NDP leader Gary Burrill wants the province to offer free lead tests to all Nova Scotians on wells – something the party proposed in legislation earlier this year, due to the high costs of testing for bacteria and chemicals in water.
“I support whatever the government has to invest in order to see that the people of Nova Scotia are not poisoned by their water,” said Burrill, responding to the findings.
“These are not trivial matters.
“We’re not talking about the government trying to save people from some level of inconvenience; we’re talking about people seriously being poisoned.”
Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston said the government must ramp up its education efforts to make sure homeowners take the initiative to test for the neurotoxin.
“The government has a responsibility to definitely do more and do a better job, and they should be looking for ways to make sure that this is always top of mind.”
Tainted Water is the largest journalism collaboration in Canadian history, involving media outlets like Global News, the Star Halifax and the Associated Press, and academic institutions like the University of King’s College. It found hundreds of thousands of Canadians could be consuming tap water laced with high levels of lead – in some cases, levels consistently higher than those at the peak of the water crisis in Flint, Mich.
According to the World Health Organization, there’s no level of lead that’s safe for human consumption. Chronic exposure is associated with renal dysfunction, high blood pressure and decreased cognitive performance in adults, and in children, behavioural problems like ADHD, lowered IQ and developmental disorders.
Health Canada sets its maximum acceptable concentration for lead in drinking water at 5 parts per billion (ppb), but in Nova Scotia, the Tainted Water investigation has uncovered lead levels as high as 80 ppb – 16 times that limit.
Benjamin Trueman, a postdoctoral researcher with Dalhousie University’s Centre for Water Studies, said some of the province’s results 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.”
Testing for lead is expensive in Nova Scotia. Kits that includes the chemical, recommended by the Nova Scotia Environment Department, cost between $50 and $250, and homeowners are encouraged to conduct such tests every two years.
A 2014 survey found that only 12 per cent of respondents were following the province’s guidelines for chemical testing, and experts believe more homeowners would test if the kits were more heavily subsidized.
Burrill maintains that testing should be free for all Nova Scotians with wells – about 440,000 residents in total.
“The real question is, is this a legitimate call on the public resources of the people of Nova Scotia? And in our view, the answer is yes,” he said.
“This is a public health issue.”
Like the provincial government, Houston believes the cost of a lead test should be borne by the homeowner. He suggested, however, that the environment ministry keep track of which private wells have been tested – “a relatively inexpensive” option.
“I think that would probably be a good use for technology,” he explained. “Keeping a database and just reaching out to homeowners to say, ‘Look, the well at this home hasn’t been tested since whatever day.'”
Environment Minister Gordon Wilson declined to provide additional comment on this investigation. In a previous interview, he said he takes the issue “very seriously,” but the provincial government’s responsibility ends at raising awareness.
“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. The big part that we play is in education and raising awareness.”
Wilson said it would cost between $30 and $40 million per year to provide free water testing to all Nova Scotians, and his government has no immediate plans to spend that money anytime soon.
“I’m not saying $30 to $40 million is too much. 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 also.”
The NDP’s bill proposing free testing for all Nova Scotia homes on well water is still on the table, but in a Liberal majority government, it’s unlikely to pass.