The City of Vancouver wants to have “the best drinking water of any city in the world” by 2020. But some homes in Vancouver do not meet Health Canada’s guidelines for lead in drinking water.
Editor’s note: This article was updated at 7:34 p.m. PT on Nov. 5, 2019 to note that the lead levels found in Flint were significantly higher than those found in Vancouver.
VANCOUVER—Lead levels that exceed federal guidelines were detected in drinking water at three of 15 Vancouver homes tested as part of a nationwide investigation, which found drinking water contaminated with the toxic metal from British Columbia to Nova Scotia.
As part of its Greenest City Action Plan, the City of Vancouver is aiming to have “the best drinking water of any city in the world” by 2020.
One of its targets is to “meet or beat the strongest of British Columbian, Canadian and appropriate international drinking water quality standards and guidelines.”
Yet, some homes in Vancouver do not meet Health Canada’s guidelines for lead in drinking water, which set the maximum acceptable concentration at five parts per billion (ppb).
“Water has to be clean and we have our part to play in that, so we’ll make sure we do our part,” Mayor Kennedy Stewart said Tuesday.
Stewart said he will ask city staff to get people who have concerns information about how they can deal with lead in drinking water and how the city can help.
Every city deals with older infrastructure, he said. Vancouver, as a relatively younger city, “is in pretty good shape here, and the thing is to stay on top of it.”
Reporters from the University of British Columbia, as part of an investigation by a national consortium of universities and media companies, including Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, Global News and Star Vancouver, collected water samples from Vancouver homes in Strathcona, Hastings-Sunrise, Renfrew-Collingwood and Sunset in November 2018 and February of this year and had them tested by an accredited lab.
Lead levels of 7.46 ppb were detected in water samples from the 75-year-old home Trula O’Haire rents in the South Vancouver neighbourhood of Sunset.
“Of course, I’m concerned. I didn’t even know about it until last year and I’ve raised two sons and one of them just moved out about five years ago, so that means for his whole university career he was drinking leaded water, too,” she said. “And I have a puppy.”
“I never, ever thought about it. You know, I was so empathic with Flint, Mich., and ‘Oh my God, how could that happen, bad U.S.A.,’ and it never occurred to me that here I am, drinking water that’s not so good as well,” she said. (Flint made international headlines in 2015 after elevated levels of lead were found in residents’ tap water. Lead levels detected by testing by journalists in Vancouver were significantly lower than those found in Flint.)
“At least I don’t have small children, but it’s such a health hazard,” she said. “It’s frightening.”
“Something definitely needs to be done.”
Reporters also found elevated lead levels in drinking water at homes in Prince Rupert, B.C., where 84 per cent of the 25 homes tested as part of this investigation exceeded Health Canada’s guidelines in at least one sample.
Health bodies, such as the World Health Organization, say there is no safe level of lead.
The metal is a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in the body overtime. Babies, young children, pregnant women and developing fetuses are among the most vulnerable to its health effects. Even at low levels, previously considered to be safe, chronic exposure can affect developing brains, lowering IQs and increasing the risk for learning disabilities. Lead is also a risk factor for heart disease, the leading cause of death worldwide.
It’s unclear how many people in Vancouver may be at risk from elevated levels of lead in their drinking water, because the city doesn’t regularly test at the tap in private homes — and there are no provincial rules that require them to do so.
“I find that really frustrating, that the city isn’t being more careful,” O’Haire said.
Vancouver resident Kate Webb, who lives in Hastings-Sunrise, is four months pregnant with her first child. She said she was “shocked” when she read about the issues with lead in drinking water in communities across Canada.
“An unborn baby is just so much more sensitive to even small concentrations of heavy metals,” she said. “So, if we find out that there is lead in the drinking water, as a pregnant person, that’s pretty disturbing.”
Webb said she will start flushing her taps immediately and plans to test her water for lead, as well.
“This is not a joke. This is really serious, and everyone in Canada should be paying attention.”
The city does occasional testing for metals in areas with turbidity issues, according to spokesperson HenryTye Glazebrook. Otherwise, he said, residents can contact water-quality testing labs to conduct lead tests.
Without proper testing, lead is difficult to detect in water because it is colourless, scentless and tasteless.
A spokesperson for Vancouver Coastal Health said, “There have been very few instances of people identified with elevated lead levels in our region, and none of the cases we have identified have ever been due to drinking water. We have no reported cases of children being adversely affected by lead in drinking water in the Vancouver Coastal Health region.”
He added, it’s important to keep lead exposure as low as possible and noted Vancouver Coastal Health provides advice on how residents can protect themselves from lead in drinking water.
In Vancouver, the responsibility for delivering clean drinking water to homes and businesses is shared by the city and Metro Vancouver.
Metro Vancouver manages three watersheds, treats drinking water at two local plants and distributes water to local governments, explained Greg Valou, a spokesperson for the regional body in a statement.
The City of Vancouver, meanwhile, is responsible for operating the systems of pipes that deliver water to homes, businesses, schools, hospitals and other buildings.
Both Metro Vancouver and the city say there are no lead pipes in their distribution systems.
Valou said lead levels are too low to be detected in both the source water and water moving through Metro Vancouver’s transmission system. Lead levels were also well below Health Canada’s guidelines in water samples from Vancouver’s distribution system, according to the city’s 2018 annual water report, and are sometimes too low to be detected.
There is a risk of contamination however, when water comes into contact with plumbing fixtures, including brass faucets, or solder, which is used to join pipe, that may contain lead in older homes. That risk is heightened if the water is acidic.
In B.C., and particularly in coastal municipalities such as Vancouver, rainwater and snowmelt contribute to water that’s naturally acidic.
Acidic water, which has a pH below 7, is a major factor in the corrosion of metal pipes and solder.
To reduce the risks of lead leaching, Metro Vancouver incorporated corrosion controls into its water treatment process in 1998 and still adjusts its water’s pH to make it less acidic.
While these measures can significantly reduce the risks of lead leaching into drinking water, it may not eliminate them entirely.
Metro Vancouver spokesperson Valou said, “It is up to individual home and building owners, industries, commercial businesses and institutions to ensure that their piping systems are in good repair once water enters their property.”
In Prince Rupert, corrosive water is contributing to widespread issues with lead in drinking water.
The city says its new water treatment plant will help reduce corrosion, but Prince Rupert Mayor Lee Brain said it won’t solve the problem entirely.
“If there weren’t sources of lead in the residential plumbing, it wouldn’t get into the water, which is why we encourage people where possible to consider replacing all plumbing components containing lead or conduct flushing,” he said, in a video posted by the City of Prince Rupert in August.
Flushing the taps by letting the water run until it’s noticeably colder before drinking can help reduce the risk of exposure to lead.
Lead levels dropped to 0.58 ppb in samples taken from O’Haire’s tap after the water had run for 45 seconds and then again to 0.51 ppb in samples taken after the water had been running for two minutes.
Bruce Lanphear, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University and an expert on lead toxicity, said flushing is a reasonable solution in the short-term.
“But if you’ve ever sat and waited two minutes for water to flush before you use it … it’s extraordinarily long,” he said. “It’s not a viable solution. We really need to get some filters in place to protect people.”
Flushing may not be effective in every household though. A 118-year-old house in Strathcona showed 9.2 parts per billion in the first sample taken in the morning. That dropped to 4.87 ppb after a two minute flush — just barely under the federal guideline.
Lanphear also noted that flushing is a waste of water. And, widespread flushing is inconsistent with the City of Vancouver’s target to reduce water consumption.
The city does not subsidize filters or plumbing replacement, Glazebrook said.
By not testing at tap, Lanphear said, the city doesn’t know how well its corrosion control is working.
“From a public health perspective … one of the responsibilities of a local government is to make sure that the citizens are protected from things in their home,” said Lanphear.
“And, so right now they’re failing to ensure that their citizens are protected from lead at the tap. They don’t know what’s going on,” he said.
Webb said she wants the city to offer free lead tests for concerned residents and better public education about the risks of lead in drinking water and the steps residents can take to protect themselves.
“Some people are fine, but you’re not going to know that unless you do some digging,” she said.
Vanessa Namuhje, a mother to three young children, also said the city could do a better job educating the public.
Lead levels of 4.58 ppb were found in her tap water, which was tested as part of this investigation. While that’s below Health Canada’s guideline, she said she’s still concerned.
“Every time I open that faucet, I always think about ‘OK, does this have something in it?’ I don’t know,” she said.
Namuhje said she finds it hard to believe that Vancouver will come close to having the world’s cleanest water by 2020.
“I’m sure if they do their testing and if they give their due diligence, then they would find that it’s kind of a joke to say ‘cleanest water,’” she said. “You have all these houses that (could) have lead in them.”
Credits: Faculty Supervisor: Charles Berret, University of British Columbia, Graduate School of Journalism
Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University: Series Producer: Patti Sonntag Research Coordinator: Michael Wrobel; Project Coordinator: Colleen Kimmett; Investigative Reporting Fellow: Lauren Donnelly
Institutional Credits: University of British Columbia, Graduate School of Journalism
Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University
See the full list of Tainted Water series credits here: concordia.ca/watercredits.