Nancy Martin and her family rented a three-storey Victorian home on a tree-lined street in Brantford, Ont., that seemed perfect: spacious, affordable and close to a playground where the couple’s five children could play.
But there was a hidden feature: their water flowed from pipes that contaminated the tap water with lead, an invisible toxin that is linked to irreversible health impacts, especially for children, including brain damage, mood disorders and developmental delays. For most of the nearly three years the Martins lived in the house, they drank, cooked with and bathed in lead-laced water.
“My job is to make sure I have a safe home for my children and that includes safe water. I didn’t provide that. I didn’t know. And that was definitely the hardest part.”
The reality is the same for renters across the country who live in homes with lead pipes. Many aren’t informed of the risks to themselves and their families. And even if they do know, there’s little they can do but complain. Or move out.
A year after the Martins moved into the house at 113 Chatham Street in Brantford, a letter from the city arrived warning of the risk of lead water pipes. The same day, Martin asked for testing.
The results were troubling: Martin’s tap water exceeded the federal limit for lead concentration three times over the federal guideline.
With a sixth child on the way, Martin and her husband feared the worst — health risks posed by lead include low birthweight and prenatal complications.
Brantford, where at least 2,500 lead service lines remain buried, offers homeowners a grant of up to $1,000 and loans up to $3,000 for removal. But Martin’s landlord refused, saying it was too expensive, Martin says.
The Martins, who were paying $1,600 a month in rent, started using bottled water until their landlord installed a filter.
“He said it would totally fix the problem,” Martin recalls. “We assumed it was then totally fine.”
A year later, city staff called again.
“They said they noticed that we hadn’t availed ourselves of any of the (lead removal) programs and (asked) what we were doing because they knew we had young children,” she says. “They had advised us basically for me and the kids to not drink or use the water.”
The city re-tested the water. A city water official wrote Martin that the installed filter was “not designed to combat lead in the drinking water.”
The test results showed lower lead levels — an average of 2.6 ppb.
“There is still lead content consistent with lead water service lines present in the water,” the city official warned in a March 2018 email. “These results can vary at different times as the testing is only a snapshot of what lead levels are during sampling.”
Martin sent the landlord text messages on March 2, 2018. He replied: “The company I bought that water system (from) disagrees with the city and probably wouldn’t be in business if the product didn’t work. Regardless, I do not have the means currently to replace the pipes.”
He offered the family the option of exiting their lease. “Otherwise, you have to deal with it as you see fit.”
“I was very angry because it’s not fair,” Martin said. “He cared to collect our rent but he didn’t care to make sure that we had a safe place to live. It should be like anything else. You have to provide a certain level of heat, you have to provide a certain level of safety, electrically speaking, you should have to provide safe water.”
Tony Rhenius, Martin’s former landlord, responded to Star questions in text message that he acted in good faith by installing a filter system shortly after purchasing the house in 2016 and learning about the lead pipes.
He said he could not afford the $10,000 to remove the pipes, which would have required excavation of his driveway: “I couldn’t afford it at the time. My position is I acted as the city instructed me. I acted immediately and put in a good (filtration) system.”
Rhenius provided an email detailing his purchase of the $200 water purification system in December 2016. It was a “carbon block” system, designed to improve chlorine and issues such as taste and odour, not lead.
It is not illegal to withhold information about lead pipes from tenants or prospective homebuyers in Ontario.
“Not required,” said Ottawa-based lawyer Michael Thiele, who specializes in residential landlord and tenant issues.
“You will not find anything explicit about lead in water in the (Residential Tenancies) Act,” he said.
However, an agent who fails to disclose lead pipes to home buyers who identified them as a concern could be investigated for “breach of ethics” by the Real Estate Council of Ontario, the regulatory body.
“We would be very interested in that complaint and we would conduct a thorough investigation to see if they failed a duty that they owed to their client,” said Kevin Kucey, the council’s deputy registrar. “If the agent isn’t doing something to protect the best interests of their client, we need to hear about it.”
The investigation could not find a federal, provincial or municipal law anywhere in Canada that requires landlords to remove lead pipes or plumbing or to disclose lead plumbing to tenants.
Three successive tenants at 113 Chatham Street were exposed to elevated lead levels without knowing it.
The Martin family moved last year. Baljinder Singh, who moved in after them, says “(lead pipes were) never mentioned.” Singh lived in the house for 10 months before moving, in part because of the lead issue he learned about from reporters.
“When I brought this up and told (the owner) there are lead pipes and journalists saying the lead levels were high, he was reluctant and said, ‘I put a filter there and so it’s not a problem.’ He didn’t care more about it.”
Three lead tests at the home conducted by reporters in April — the month Singh moved out — showed lead concentrations ranging from 6.4 to 6.8 ppb, exceeding Canada’s federal guideline of 5 ppb.
Lead pipes remained visible in the home and no filter was present at the time of testing.
Reporters returned to the house in July to test again. All three samples taken tested over the federal guideline, ranging from 7 ppb to 9.7 ppb.
Rohan Gheewala, another tenant, moved out in August after learning of the lead risk.
“I was never warned about it. The landlord never mentioned anything about it. Even later on, once or twice I tried to talk to him about it, and he brushed it off.”
He says he and his wife started buying bottled water, avoiding water from the tap.
“I was not happy about it. When we are renting out a place, we are paying for the location and amenities and we are supposed to know about issues we’re going to face.”
Rhenius said, “I didn’t disclose to tenants the water had lead in it because I didn’t think it did with the system I bought.”
The house was sold in August for $477,500, according to property records.
The new owner, Buminato Polina, says he did not know the house had lead pipes.“I wasn’t told. I just found out from you.”
Polina is replacing the old pipes to address water pressure issues which will also address the lead issue.
“There should be full disclosure on the condition of a house. It would impact my decision. I could have negotiated with the seller in terms of getting it fixed.”
Rhenius said he agrees that disclosure of lead should be mandatory because the same thing happened to him.
“When I purchased the home it was not disclosed to me it had a lead pipe,” he wrote. “If it was disclosed when I was buying the house I would have offered less… So I think it should be disclosed when selling a home.”
He added that Polina was aware of the water filtration system.
“We both used the same realtor.”
Rob Windmill, the real-estate agent representing both sides in the sale, says he told prospective buyers about the filtration system.
“When taking people through in open houses… I would say that is a filtration system and why it is there,” he said. “Any disclosure that was made between me and the sellers and me and the buyers was that, because it was such an old house, there could or could not be lead pipes coming, but the filtration system… should counteract any of that.”
Windmill said he also supports tougher disclosure rules.
“My personal feeling is I think you deserve to know what you’re purchasing. Even in a lease, you’re buying time to stay there. How can you make an informed decision if you don’t know all of the details?”
Today, the Martins are in a new home. At 900 square feet, it has much less space for them and their six children. But more important to them, it’s free of lead.
Still, the children remain too nervous to drink tap water. Martin says her last pregnancy was the hardest yet. She developed a stomach tumour and had surgery at 23 weeks. Her daughter was born underweight and continues to have health challenges. She has no evidence that lead was the cause, but Martin wonders.
“It really bothers me that I could have unknowingly contributed to her health problems by drinking unsafe water,” says Martin. “I had never thought that that would be something that we would have a problem with in Canada… It’s something that people should know.”