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If you live in Alberta, here’s what you can do to have your water tested for lead

WATCH ABOVE: Julia Wong takes a look at what's being done to lower lead levels in Edmonton's drinking water and whether it's enough.

Testing your water is the best way to find out if there’s lead in it.

Older homes — those built more than 40 years ago — are at greater risk because they are more likely to have lead plumbing.

In Edmonton, you can find your home’s year of construction by going to the city’s online property assessment map and entering your address. In Calgary, you can find your home’s year of construction by going online to the myProperty portal on the city’s website and searching your home address.

Lead was used as a material for water pipes until 1975 and in solder used to join pipes until 1986. Until 2014, faucets and hardware could contain up to eight per cent lead. Note that galvanized steel pipes can also leach lead into drinking water.

In Edmonton, EPCOR estimates that eight to nine per cent of homes without lead service lines (LSLs) have lead levels higher than the maximum acceptable concentration set out by Health Canada.

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READ MORE: Investigation into lead in Canada’s drinking water spurs calls for action across country

How do I check the pipes inside my home to see if they are made of lead?

You can look at the pipes and solder joining pipes anywhere they are visible in your home. Lead is grey in colour, will generally not attract a magnet and can be easily scratched with a knife or key. The scratches will appear silvery rather than coppery. You can also ask a plumber or home inspector to check for you.

What about the service line? Is it possible for me to check on whether it’s made of lead?

EPCOR keeps records of LSLs on the public side and sends letters annually to residents with them. They also have a lead management program representative you can call to confirm whether you have an LSL.

For more information, contact EPCOR’s lead management program at 780-412-6858 or by email at leadprogram@epcor.com.

EPCOR does not keep records of known LSLs on private property, and homeowners are responsible for the section of service line on their property. To check your service line, look for the pipe entering your home in your basement, garage or crawl space. If you have a water meter, check the pipe feeding into the meter from the ground. You can do a visual inspection for lead, as described above.

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The City of Calgary keeps records of its known LSLs on the public side and is responsible for replacing them. As of 2018, city records showed there were 551 LSLs, mostly located in the inner city. The city mails letters annually to addresses with known or suspected LSLs.

For more information, contact the city’s 311 operator or the water services department online at Calgary.ca.

The city does not keep records of known LSLs on private property, and homeowners are responsible for the section of service line on their property. To check your service line, look for the pipe entering your home in your basement, garage or crawl space. If you have a water meter, check the pipe feeding into the meter from the ground. You can do a visual inspection for lead, as described above.

You can also ask a plumber or home inspector to check for you. 

READ MORE: Is Canada’s tap water safe? Thousands of test results show high lead levels across the country

How do I get my drinking water tested for lead?

EPCOR provides Edmonton residents with free lead tests.

Private accredited laboratories will test household drinking water for lead for a fee that is typically between $35 and $75. A list of accredited labs can be found on the Canadian Association for Laboratory Accreditation (CALA) website.

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To measure the maximum amount of lead your family may be exposed to, sample the water after a minimum six-hour stagnation period, during which no faucets or showers in the building have been used or toilets flushed — usually first thing in the morning or after returning from work. Lead leaching is highest in July and August when the pipes are warmest.

In a year-long investigation by nine universities and 10 media organizations, including Global News and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, we followed a three-sample method. After a six-hour stagnation, the kitchen tap was turned on at high pressure and the first sample collected immediately. The second sample was collected after the water had run for 45 seconds, and the third sample was collected after the water had run for two minutes.

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

Test completed. How do I interpret the results?

In Alberta, our reporter wasn’t able to get help interpreting lead results from regional or provincial public health officers.

Health Canada has set the maximum acceptable concentration of lead in drinking water at five micrograms per litre, or five parts per billion (ppb).

Scientists agree there is no level of lead that is considered safe, and Health Canada recommends reducing levels as much as possible. Lead exposure, even at low levels, is especially risky for fetuses, babies and young children because it interferes with brain development.

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If you use the three-sample method described above, the results of the first sample may indicate whether lead is leaching from the faucet or plumbing. The second sample is intended to measure whether lead is leaching from the service line. The third sample may indicate whether lead is leaching from the water main.

The faucets need to be replaced. What should I look for when I’m buying new ones?

When buying a faucet, check whether it’s been certified as lead-free by a third-party certification body like the International National Sanitation Foundation or the CSA Group. The faucet’s packaging should indicate that it complies with NSF/ANSI 61 or NSF/ANSI 372 standards.

The service line needs to be replaced. What should I do?

As the utility, EPCOR is responsible for replacing LSLs on the public side and says it prioritizes replacement for homes with young children and pregnant women, or where the homeowner plans to replace an LSL on the private side.

Homeowners are responsible for replacing LSLs on the private side. To replace an LSL on the private side, get in touch with EPCOR as a first step. Company representatives say EPCOR is creating a program that will help with the cost. You will also need to contact your plumber.

Residents who live in Calgary homes with a public-side LSL as identified by the city can register for free lead testing, which is conducted annually by the city. The program is first come, first served and capped at 100 participants per year. If results from an average of four samples are above Health Canada’s maximum allowable concentration, the LSL is added to a rolling list of LSL replacements on construction services’ annual schedule.

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Homeowners are responsible for replacing the private portion of their service line. The City of Calgary does not cover any costs for replacing an LSL on the private side of a property. If you plan on replacing an LSL on the private side, get in touch with the city as a first step at 311.

READ MORE: Investigation leads to questions about safety of children’s drinking water in Alberta

Is there anything I can do right away to reduce my family’s exposure to lead?

A water filter certified for lead should remove lead to undetectable levels.

Make sure that lead is listed on the package and look for filters certified by the International National Sanitation Foundation to NSF/ANSI 53 or NSF/ANSI 58 standards. Install filters at all faucets used for drinking or cooking. Be sure to replace the cartridges regularly, as instructed.

EPCOR offers free filters to customers with LSLs who have signed up with its lead management program.

The City of Calgary offers a $100 rebate towards filters for customers with a known LSL on the public side of their property.

You can also run the water at your kitchen faucet for a few minutes before using, especially when you get up in the morning or after returning from work or a vacation. Always use cold water for drinking and cooking.

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I’m a renter and I found out my drinking water has lead levels above Health Canada’s maximum acceptable concentration of five micrograms per litre. What can I do?

Landlords are responsible for meeting minimum housing and health standards under the Public Health Act but are not required to disclose to renters if there are interior lead pipes or service lines. If you and your landlord can’t agree on action to be taken to reduce lead levels in your drinking water and you would like to take the issue to arbitration, you can contact Alberta Arbitration and Mediation Society by calling 1-888-411-9710.

Do you live outside of Edmonton and Calgary?

Airdrie

Fort Saskatchewan

Grande Prairie

Leduc

Lethbridge

Medicine Hat

Red Deer

Rocky View County

Spruce Grove

St. Albert

If you live outside of these regions, contact your city directly. For further information about drinking water and lead testing, contact the province directly here.

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