Many residents of one of Canada’s wealthiest neighbourhoods don’t have safe tap water due to lead contamination, according to newly-released provincial government data, obtained through a joint investigation involving Global News, Le Devoir and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism.
The tap water testing results show that Westmount, Que., a municipality that lies partly on Mount Royal, overlooking downtown Montreal, is among the cities with the highest number of samples tainted with levels of lead that exceed Quebec’s standard of 10 parts per billion (ppb).
The provincial environment ministry released the testing results in response to a request made by the Institute for Investigative Journalism through access to information legislation.
Overall, the results show 44 samples in the city, known for its heritage homes and wealthy inhabitants, that were above the standard between 2015 and 2018.
Only Montreal, with 67 tainted samples, Gatineau with 62, and Côte Saint-Luc with 46 were worse in the province.
Côte Saint-Luc has disputed the provincial results, saying that its own records reveal only 36 exceedances between 2015 and 2018.
The exceedances are more common in older neighbourhoods across Canada with homes and apartment buildings with eight dwellings or less that were connected to water mains with underground lead pipes.
Officials have not tested the tap water in most of the homes in these cities, but they have focused their testing on the older homes.
There are tens of thousands of underground lead pipes on the Island of Montreal, including thousands in demerged cities such as Westmount, Côte Saint-Luc, Hampstead and Montreal-West.
Westmount Mayor Christina Smith said the city is aware it has a problem.
“We also have older homes in the city of Westmount… many, many heritage homes and they’re single family homes,” she said in an interview on Nov. 14.
“So it’s not surprising and it is something we’re working on and really trying to educate residents that when we come in to redo your street and when the construction goes on, there’s a reason for it.
“All of our road reconstruction is driven by the water network and the replacement of the water network.”
In 2018, the city tested 20 homes and more than half exceeded a new recommended federal limit of five ppb. Since 2014, the city says that more than a third of its 120 tests have exceeded 10 ppb, while one exceeded 50 ppb and resulted in replacement of the homeowner’s pipes.
These results were obtained using an outdated testing method established by provincial regulations that requires flushing taps for five minutes prior to taking a sample.
The stagnant water is likely to have higher concentrations of lead after sitting in pipes for an extended period of time.
Premier François Legault’s government has pledged to revise this testing method in response to previous reporting by Global News and its partners that revealed how the method fails to capture the maximum level of exposure in homes across the province.
Experts say that the number of high lead levels would increase significantly, once Quebec adopts a more stringent testing method that would require collecting stagnant tap water samples.
In addition, the Legault government has also indicated that Quebec will adopt Health Canada’s new recommended safety limit of five parts per billion.
Andrea Fieldman was among those who were visited by city workers in 2018 for sampling. Her own results revealed she had lead levels of 27 ppb following the five-minute flush — more than five times the federal limit.
Although she has lived in her home for 50 years, she says she wasn’t planning to change her habits. She says she runs the tap before drinking it — a practice recommended by city officials to flush out stagnant water that has been sitting in lead pipes and is more likely to have higher concentrations of lead.
“I’m 80 years old, so I think I’m doing fine,” she said.
Lead can also get into tap water if it leaches from internal plumbing fixtures and lead solder inside homes.
Like other cities in Quebec, including Montreal, Westmount has sent letters to its residents suggesting that the health risks of lead in tap water are low for most people.
Scientists say that there is no safe level of lead and that it can be especially dangerous for pregnant women and children, leading to behavioural problems or a loss of IQ for the latter.
The City of Westmount says it doesn’t know how many lead pipes they have left in the ground, but the mayor said that it actively replaces pipes as it does road work.
“Every time we redo a road, we communicate with residents,” said Smith, the mayor.
Like Côte Saint-Luc, Westmount took over ownership of its water systems after it demerged from the City of Montreal in 2006. It also sub-contracted management of the services to Dessau, the same engineering firm that was contracted by Côte Saint-Luc.
“In 2006, we took over the water network in our city so we know what we’ve done since then, but there are some gaps in what was done prior to that,” she said.
A city engineering official said Westmount ended its contract with Dessau after 2008. It now works with a few different firms for various aspects of its water services under the supervision of a city employee.
The mayor also said that the city still has a lot of work to do to get the lead pipes out of the ground, but estimates that 40 per cent of the city does not have any lead pipes underground.
“We can’t tear up an entire city’s water network at once, so street by street we hope that residents get on board and change their lead services intakes,” she said.
“There are temporary measures they can do in the meantime.”
The city is considering giving out filters to residents who are waiting for pipes to be changed, but it is still working on details of its plan.
It is also offering to pay for testing at schools and daycares, even though any lead found in the water of those buildings would likely be due to internal plumbing fixtures, taps and fountains, and unrelated to any city water infrastructure.
Story by: Dan Spector and Mike De Souza
Investigative reporters, Concordia University:
Katherina Boucher, Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Lillian Roy, Gabriela Simone
Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University:
Series producer and faculty supervisor: Patti Sonntag
Research coordinator: Michael Wrobel
Project coordinator: Colleen Kimmett
Editorial assistants: Brigitte Tousignant, Fabio Luis Leon-Rosa, Lea Sabbah
Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University