As many municipal and provincial leaders are rushing to defend their tap water as safe, some levels of government across the country are already taking action to get the lead out.
The explanations about what municipal, provincial and federal officials have or haven’t done are flooding out of city halls and legislatures across the country in the wake of a year-long investigation by Global News, Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism and other media partners, including journalism students from across the country, that analyzed thousands of tap water test results.
The newly-released data, released by cities through freedom of information legislation, revealed that 33 per cent of about 12,000 samples, collected by cities since 2014, exceeded Health Canada’s current recommended limit of five parts per billion (ppb).
But cities such as Toronto, Quebec City and Winnipeg say they had already mitigated the risks of lead-tainted water by treating their supply with a non-toxic substance, orthophosphate, that helps control corrosion. Orthophospate can help mitigate the risks of lead leaching into the water by forming a protective barrier on the pipes.
Corrosion control is mandatory in the U.S. for cities when lead concentrations exceed 15 ppb in more than 10 per cent of their samples. But with no similar federal legislation in Canada, many cities don’t have to take any action in those circumstances.
Toronto, which estimates that it has about 26,000 lead pipes underground, once had some of the highest lead levels in tap water in the country.
But ever since it started treating its water with orthophosphate, the amount of lead in Toronto’s tap water samples has dropped dramatically, according to municipal statistics, published by the city.
In 2008 — when the city sampled water taken from homes with lead service pipes connecting them to city water mains — the average sample taken after taps were stagnant for at least 30 minutes had 11.9 ppb of lead.
To address this problem, Toronto started adding orthophosphate to its water in 2014.
By 2018, the average sample for this type of home had dropped to 1.2 ppb.
William Fernandes, director of water treatment and supply in Toronto, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about these early results.
“I think the numbers over the next few years are going to tell us,” Fernandes told Global News in an interview.
“Right now, we’ve got two years of data, and the two years are very encouraging. So, I would say the City of Toronto is really proud of what we have done.”
The plan initially cost $9 million to implement and about $3 million per year to pursue since then. Today, less than two per cent of samples exceed the standard. The process also generates savings as it extends the life of homeowners’ pipes, according to Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and civil engineering at Virginia Tech who helped expose the water crisis in Flint, Mich., in 2015.
“Generally speaking, corrosion control is thought to save about $10 for every dollar you spend on it,” Edwards said.
Scientists say there isn’t any safe level of lead. It has been linked to numerous health problems in adults such as high blood pressure, heart disease and kidney problems. It can also cause complications during pregnancy and is especially dangerous for children.
The city says it has also replaced 30,000 underground lead service lines since 2007, and that it offers a free water filter to anyone who chooses not to replace their side of the lead pipes on private property.
Filters can be the easiest and most cost-effective solution to getting lead out of water if they are certified under the NSF 53 or 58 standard.
The certified filters can either be inserted into pitchers or installed on taps that are used to drink water. It’s also important to note that boiling water doesn’t get rid of lead. Instead, it actually can increase the concentration of any water, or get absorbed into food when used for cooking.
To figure out whether you have lead in your water, you can usually start by calling your city to find out about testing, or by reaching out to an independent lab in order to gather a sample and pay for the test.
In your basement, experts say that a lead pipe would usually have a dull grey colour. And if you scratch it with a key, it would usually leave a shiny mark.
In Calgary, after journalism students from Mount Royal University tested the water at Monica Baehr’s home and found high levels of lead, the homeowner decided to pay about $8,000 to have her underground lead-service line replaced.
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Ultimately, this is the best solution, experts say.
“There’s an international consensus now that you have to take the lead out,” said Michèle Prévost, a civil engineering professor from Polytechnique Montréal, who has advised governments around the world about municipal drinking water systems.
“The first action is to take the lead pipes and the lead component out of those houses.”
Although Saskatoon has collected water samples from homes that have some of the highest levels of lead detected in the country, experts have also praised the city for having an aggressive program to remove lead pipes. It proactively removes lead service lines on both public and private property, leading up to homes and assumes 60 per cent of the costs, while asking homeowners to pay for the rest of the bill on their property taxes.
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante also responded to previous reports about lead pipes in her city by announcing a similar plan to remove the pipes and bill the owner for their portion of the line.
“So now, we’re kind of switching gears and we will be doing all the work, sending the bill to house owners after that,” Plante told Global News in an Oct. 21 interview.
“They will have up to 15 years to pay us back.”
University of British Columbia:
Lauren Donnelly, Jamuna Galay-Tamang, Brenna Owen, V. S. Wells, Nancy Wu
Dylanna Fisher, Raysa Marcondes, Shaela Dansereau, Cheyenne Juknies, Maya Abdallah, Keshia Bundred, Austin Connelly, Zoe Cronin, Derrick Ferry, Clint Hoekstra, Claire Okeke, Sarah Spisak, Molly Stogrin, Kiefer Sutherland, Ishita Verma
Mount Royal University:
Alannah Page, Stephanie Hagenaars, Karina Zapata
University of Regina:
Joseph Bernacki, Jacob Carr, Dominique Head, Nathan Meyer, Kaitlynn Nordal, Heather O’Watch, Kayleen Sawatzky, Dan Sherven, Rigel Smith, Ethan Williams, Wenqing Zhan
Kit Kolbegger, Michelle Rowe, Brendan Pietrobon
Victoria Shariati, Kiki Cekota, Kenzie MacLaren, Kelly Skjerven, Ryerson School of Journalism
Danielle Edwards, Jennifer Liu
Brigitte Tousignant, Miriam Lafontaine, Ian Down, Mackenzie Lad, Michael Bramadat-Willcock, Lea Sabbah, Mia Anhoury, James Betz-Gray, Matthew Coyte, Thomas Delbano, Elaine Genest, Adrian Knowler, Benjamin Languay, Franca Mignacca, Jon Milton, Katelyn Thomas, Ayrton Wakfer
University of King’s College:
Lyndsay Armstrong, Megan O’Toole
Investigative Reporting Fellows:
Lyndsay Armstrong, Lauren Donnelly, Ian Down, Dylanna Fisher, Declan Keogh, Mackenzie Lad, Alannah Page
Practicum students and interns:
Kiki Cekota — Ryerson University
Shaela Dansereau — MacEwan University
Cheyenne Juknies — MacEwan University
Raysa Marcondes — MacEwan University
Victoria Shariati — Ryerson University
Brigitte Tousignant — Le Devoir
Teaching assistant: Céline Grimard
Mike De Souza, Megan Robinson, Carolyn Jarvis, Heather Yourex-West, Elizabeth McSheffrey, Dan Spector, Katelyn Wilson, Marney Blunt, Blake Lough, Julia Wong, and Paul Johnson, Global News
Charles Berret — University of British Columbia
Joe Couture — University of Regina
Robert Cribb — Ryerson University
David Fraser — University of Regina
Trevor Grant — University of Regina
Lara King — Humber College
Steve Lillebuen — MacEwan University
Janice Paskey — Mount Royal University
Patti Sonntag — Concordia University
Pauline Dakin — University of King’s College
Christopher Waddell — Carleton University
David Weisz — Humber College
Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University
Series Producer: Patti Sonntag
Research Coordinator: Michael Wrobel
Project Coordinator: Colleen Kimmett
Carleton University, School of Journalism and Communication
Concordia University, Department of Journalism
Humber College, Journalism Program
Mount Royal University, Journalism and Broadcast Media Programs
Ryerson University, School of Journalism
University of British Columbia, Graduate School of Journalism
University of King’s College, School of Journalism
University of Regina, School of Journalism
The reporting continues, with First Nations University of Canada and Université du Québec à Montréal recent additions to the consortium. Ryerson School of Journalism’s Karyn Pugliese has joined the collaborative’s circle of advisors and Martha Troian is producer.
Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University
See the full list of “Tainted Water” series credits here: concordia.ca/watercredits.