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

WATCH: An investigation conducted with journalists from nine universities, 10 media outlets - including Global News - and the Institute of Investigative Journalism, involved knocking on the doors of 260 homes across Canada to check how safe their water is. The findings revealed 39 per cent of homes were tainted by lead that exceeded maximum levels deemed safe by Health Canada. Heather Yourex-West reports.

Across the country, politicians of all stripes are responding to a massive, year-long investigation that found hundreds of thousands of Canadians could be consuming tap water laced with high levels of lead.

Federal opposition parties called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to take a stronger leadership role to help municipalities address the issue of removing lead service lines — pipes connecting homes and apartment buildings to water mains  — that are the main sources of lead contamination.

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

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

“This is shocking, but unfortunately not surprising with the lack of funding for municipalities to update their aging infrastructure from past Conservative and Liberal governments,” said NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.

“This situation is not normal and Trudeau’s Liberals must play a role of leadership and must work with provinces and municipalities to fix it.”

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Matt Jeneroux, Conservative infrastructure critic, said that Trudeau’s government needs to work with provincial governments and territories to tackle the underlying infrastructure issues.

“All Canadians deserve access to clean drinking water,” Jeneroux said.

“Trudeau’s failure to work with provinces and territories has delayed critical infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges and vital water and wastewater projects from getting funded and built.”

The investigation by more than 120 journalists from nine universities and 10 media organizations, including Global News, the Toronto Star and the Institute for Investigative Journalism at Concordia University in Montreal, collected test results that measured exposure to lead in 11 cities.

Out of 12,000 tests since 2014, one-third — 33 per cent — exceeded the national safety guideline of five parts per billion (ppb).

WATCH: Drinking water at thousands of Ontario schools, daycares have dangerous lead levels

Tainted Water: Are the fountains safe?
Tainted Water: Are the fountains safe?

Reporters also found that children in thousands of schools and daycares across Canada are likely being exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water and don’t know it, according to  provincial studies and internal briefing materials obtained under freedom of information legislation.

Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor declined a request for an interview. She said in a statement that “Canadians can continue to have confidence in the water they drink” and pointed to Health Canada’s decision to cut the guideline for acceptable lead levels in drinking water in half — to five ppb from 10 ppb.

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Canadian kids likely exposed to lead in water
Canadian kids likely exposed to lead in water

“Water management in Canada is a shared responsibility, with provinces handling management, treatment and distribution and municipalities taking care of day-to-day operations. This means that provinces are mostly responsible for implementing these new guidelines, and fully meeting them may take time.”

Here’s how provincial governments have responded to the findings of the investigation:

Alberta

NDP MLA Marlin Schmidt called on Premier Jason Kenney’s UCP government to order a provincial review into the safety of drinking water during an exchange in question period at the Alberta legislature on Tuesday.

“In Calgary, the results were shocking,” Schmidt said as he directed his question to Environment Minister Jason Nixon. “In Edmonton, three out of every 10 test results exceeded the federal guideline for lead in drinking water, and some results were as high as 120 times the limit. In Calgary, some tests reported levels of lead that were nearly four times the federally accepted limit.”

NDP MLA calls on UCP to order provincial review looking into safety of drinking water
NDP MLA calls on UCP to order provincial review looking into safety of drinking water

Nixon replied by saying his government is “happy to have adopted the federal standards, starting in January.”

“Our government will continue to work with municipalities and homeowners, schools and other areas that have water that we’re concerned about, Mr Speaker, to be able to move forward in a productive way, as set out the federal guidelines,” he said.

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“We have a plan to do that. That’s the direction that our government will be headed in.”

Schmidt then directly asked Nixon if he could be more specific about the government’s plans, noting that “the cost of replacing lead service lines and Edmonton is only $14 million (and) the cost of replacing the lines in Calgary is $11 million, a fraction of their $4.7-billion handout to the corporations.”

Nixon replied by reiterating his previous statement. Schmidt then asked Nixon if he would “commit today to banning plumbing fixtures containing lead,” and Nixon reiterated his initial reply for a third time.

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

On Wednesday, Nixon was again asked about the NDP’s calls for a review to look further into the issue.

“I don’t know what the value of that would be,” he said. “The NDP, over half a year ago, was in government and were aware of these numbers.

“As we went through the process, they didn’t see a need for a public inquiry. I think our time in government is better spent making sure we move forward in a productive way to be able to deal with the issue.”

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Nixon also said he did not have specific dates for when and how the province will do public posting of residential lead test results.

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Allison Purcell-Pike, the president of the Alberta School Councils’ Association, said the investigation by Global News and its partners was concerning.

“It’s definitely concerning for parents to know that there may not be safe learning environments that our students are in,” she said. “Parents across the province definitely do want to ensure students are in safe learning environments.”

Purcell-Pike said the association does not have a policy for mandatory lead testing in schools but is leaning on the province to take action.

“We do want to ensure there are provincial standards, that it is not left up to local school boards to be making local policies,” she said.

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“When we see provincial standards, then we know that no matter what community you live in, you can have the same expectations across the province.”

In a joint letter sent to school board chairs and superintendents in Alberta on Tuesday, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Education Minister Adriana LaGrange acknowledged “there have been recent concerns circulating in the media with regards to lead health risks in schools.”

“The health and safety of Alberta’s children is of the utmost importance,” the letter reads in part. “While any cases are few and far between, and many school divisions acted years ago, we are writing to remind you that Alberta Health Services stands ready to support school divisions should they wish to test lead concentrations in water sources.

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“We look forward to continued collaboration and appreciate your efforts on this issue.”

READ MORE: Mayor, EPCOR respond to investigation showing Edmonton water lead levels exceed federal guidelines

On Monday, Edmonton Mayor Mayor Iveson answered with a simple “no” at first when asked if he had any concerns about the city’s water quality.

“EPCOR’s board and management report to us regularly,” he elaborated. “I think they’ve taken a very proactive approach to it and are prepared to help support homeowners who do have concerns with filtration and other things.

“Recognizing that the pipes need to change over time, and there is work to do. I have full confidence in the water supply and the integrity of it in our city.”

EPCOR had responded to the investigation initially, saying that there are about 4,450 homes in Edmonton with private lead lines, and another 23,000 with lead plumbing or fixtures. The agency also said it always notifies customers of lead test results.

EPCOR added that it offers free water tests for households with lead water pipes and will provide free filters or replace the entire line if needed.

In the wake of the investigation, city councillors in Calgary have asked that city’s water resources department to look into the issue and submit a report to council on the problem early in the new year so councillors can consider the best way to move forward on it.

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“We kind of felt smug about Flint, Mich., and how our water is so pristine,” Coun. Druh Farrell told Global News on Tuesday. “It’s a fairly small problem compared to other cities… but it must be addressed.

“From what I understand, it’s about an $11-million cost to address it, which is something that we can afford.”

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Farrell added that she believes council has a responsibility to act on the issue because it concerns public safety.

Ontario

Investigation shows lead is a very real threat in Canadian water
Investigation shows lead is a very real threat in Canadian water

Official Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath slammed Premier Doug Ford’s government after the reporting found 2,400 Ontario schools and daycares exceeded the current federal guideline for lead in drinking water — five ppb — in the past two years.

Around two dozen schools and daycares across Ontario reported samples higher than 1,000 ppb — a level experts say can immediately impact blood-lead levels in a child. Although the data is available on a provincial website, students, parents and teachers are not warned directly.

“It’s certainly frightening, for any parents who are watching this unfold about the quality of drinking water and the lead contamination that exists to varying levels at various schools,” Horwath said.

“The troubling piece is that this minister doesn’t think he has any responsibility to let parents know what is happening in schools and child care centres.”

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READ MORE: Children in schools and daycares across Canada are exposed to unsafe water

Ontario Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said his office is reviewing whether to lower Ontario’s lead threshold from 10 parts per billion (ppb) to meet the current federal guideline.

“At the end of day I want to reiterate we have safe drinking water in the province of Ontario,” Yurek told reporters. “It’s one of the most robust reporting systems in the country.”

“Parents can go to the school and request the records of their water testing,” he said, adding the school boards should be responsible for relaying information about water tests to parents.

READ MORE: Do you have lead in your tap water? What you can do to find out in Ontario

In Toronto, city councillor Anthony Peruzza said he would ask Toronto Public Health to immediately post all testing results related to drinking water on the city’s website.

“The news reports are worrisome,” he said in a statement. “It’s important that our city takes the lead to make sure that our water is safe for Torontonian to use.”

Mayor John Tory reiterated that city’s water is safe and undergoes constant testing.

“We have given the advice to people in areas where there has been even a hint of a problem that they simply run the water for few seconds before using it. It’s going to virtually guarantee that the levels are negligible,” he told reporters Monday.

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“But we’ve got to keep working on this by replacing the pipes that are ours and by encouraging city residents to replace their own pipes.”

Quebec

‘I don’t want citizens to be worried’: Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante insists water is safe to drink
‘I don’t want citizens to be worried’: Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante insists water is safe to drink

The Quebec government announced policy changes in October after reviewing data reported by Global News and its partners, revealing that many households in close to 100 cities across the province were exposed to dangerous levels of lead from their taps.

Premier François Legault said his government is planning to change how it tests drinking water following the results of the investigation. Currently, Quebec’s testing method requires flushing out taps for five minutes before taking a sample, which means it won’t accurately capture lead that has collected overnight in pipes that could be consumed by households when they turn on their taps in the morning.

“It doesn’t seem to me like it should be this complicated to do the [right] test,” Legault said Oct. 16.
“[Quebec Health Minister] Danielle McCann will ensure that municipalities everywhere will do tests correctly… as Health Canada recommends.”

READ MORE: Quebec says it will pay for daycares to test tap water for lead

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said her city would start removing lead pipes, both on the public and private side of property lines.

“Ultimately it’s not about the water, it’s about the water pipes which carries the lead,” Plante said.

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“We have made a decision at the city of Montreal to take responsibility for the private part of the lead service lines.”

The city said it would spend over $500 million to pay for the public portion of the pipes while sending a bill worth thousands of dollars for the remainder of the replacement to owners to reimburse over 15 years.

Nova Scotia

Thousands of Nova Scotians at risk of lead exposure from wells
Thousands of Nova Scotians at risk of lead exposure from wells

Opposition leaders in Nova Scotia called on the government to act on reducing the risk of lead exposure in private wells.

The NDP said the government should be providing well water tests for all Nova Scotians. A comprehensive test can cost $200.

“The real question is, is this a legitimate call on the public resources of the people of Nova Scotia,” Gary Burrill said. “In our view, the answer is yes. This is a public health issue.”

READ MORE: Thousands of Nova Scotians at risk of lead exposure from wells

PC Leader Tim Houston said the province should do a better job of tracking well-testing data.

“I think that would be a good use for technology and keeping a database,” he said. “And just reaching out to homeowners to say, look, the well at this home hasn’t been tested since whatever day.”

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Environment Minister Gordon Wilson declined to comment on the investigation but said the Liberal government takes the quality of drinking water seriously and encouraged residents to test  their wells every two years.

Saskatchewan

The NDP in Saskatchewan is calling for a provincial review after the investigation released Monday showed drinking water from some Regina, Saskatoon, and Moose Jaw homes were among the highest levels of lead-tainted water in the country.

“The levels of lead that were exposed in this report are really troubling,” NDP municipal relations critic Trent Wotherspoon said in the Saskatchewan legislature Monday.

“I think right now we need a full assessment in a very urgent way, a true picture of what we’re dealing with by way of the levels of lead within the water and what the sources of that lead is and then to work in partnership with municipalities to make sure that we have safe drinking water,” he urged.

READ MORE: Sask. NDP calls for more action following investigative report on lead-tainted water

Minister of Highways and Infrastructure Greg Ottenbreit dismissed the evidence gathered by Global News and its partners. Instead, he emphasized Saskatchewan water sources are safe and pointed the finger at municipalities and property owners.

“Over the years we’ve increased municipal revenue sharing with municipalities to make sure that they can have flexible funding that they can address issues like this,” said Ottenbreit.

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He added that the Water Security Agency works closely with municipalities to monitor lead levels in water, but that it’s up to municipalities to address such issues.

Asked if the province would do more to help cities tackle the lead issue, he said not at this time.

READ MORE: How lead levels in 5 Canadian cities compared to those in Flint, Mich.

In response to the investigation, the City of Regina says it’s reviewing its Lead Service Connections program to make improvements. The city currently sends out letters to residents who have a city-owned lead service line, offering free water testing and filters for up to one year.

Pat Wilson, Regina’s director of water, waste and environmental services, said calls related to lead pipe concerns flooded the city on Monday after the investigative report came out.

“We are hoping that this story will help to bring some focus to it and we will see more residents call us,” Wilson said. “We are going to be continuing to add elements to our program as we go through — we come to council every year.”

–With files from Global News’ Katelyn Wilson,  Phil Heidenreich and Allison Bench