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What do you do if you find lead in your tap water in Canada?

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

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).

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

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.

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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.

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

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.

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

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.

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“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 cost of replacing lead service lines for residents in Regina, Moose Jaw and Saskatoon
The cost of replacing lead service lines for residents in Regina, Moose Jaw and Saskatoon

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. 

READ MORE: Tainted water in Nova Scotia: How do I get the lead out?

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.

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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.

Some Alberta daycares and schools may contain high levels of lead in drinking water
Some Alberta daycares and schools may contain high levels of lead in drinking water

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.

READ MORE: Quebec to review how it tests drinking water following investigative report

Ultimately, this is the best solution, experts say.

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“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’s mayor says she’s dealing with a contaminated lead issue at home
Montreal’s mayor says she’s dealing with a contaminated lead issue at home

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.”

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Additional credits:

University of British Columbia:

Lauren Donnelly, Jamuna Galay-Tamang, Brenna Owen, V. S. Wells, Nancy Wu

MacEwan University:

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

Humber College:

Kit Kolbegger, Michelle Rowe, Brendan Pietrobon

Ryerson University:

Victoria Shariati, Kiki Cekota, Kenzie MacLaren, Kelly Skjerven, Ryerson School of Journalism

Carleton University:

Danielle Edwards, Jennifer Liu

Concordia University:

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

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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

Investigative reporters: 

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

Faculty Supervisors:

Charles Berret — University of British Columbia

Joe Couture — University of Regina

Robert Cribb — Ryerson University

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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

Institutional Credits:

Carleton University, School of Journalism and Communication

Concordia University, Department of Journalism

Humber College, Journalism Program

MacEwan University

Mount Royal University, Journalism and Broadcast Media Programs

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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

Associated Press

Global News

Le Devoir

National Observer

Regina Leader-Post

Star Calgary

Star Edmonton

Star Halifax

Star Vancouver

Toronto Star

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.