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Montreal public health letter urges demerged cities to be more transparent about water safety

Click to play video 'City of Côte Saint-Luc looking for solutions to lead problem' City of Côte Saint-Luc looking for solutions to lead problem
WATCH: Since Global News aired its story about lead in the drinking water in Côte Saint-Luc at the beginning of the week, the mayor's office has been inundated with calls from worried residents. Global's Dan Spector explains – Nov 22, 2019

Montreal public health officials are urging demerged cities on the island to be more transparent about the risks of lead pipes, as well as to offer filters to residents at risk of drinking unsafe water as they wait for the replacement of underground lead pipes — work that could take more than a decade to complete.

The agency sent the recommendations to the cities in a Nov. 6 letter, following a year-long investigation by Global News, Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism and Le Devoir.

The investigation revealed that nearly 100 municipalities in the province had detected at least one sample of tap water that was exceeding Quebec’s standard, and that many residents said they weren’t adequately informed about their water quality and how to protect their health.

READ MORE: Westmount, Que. has high levels of lead-tainted tap water, testing results show

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“Filters should be offered [by cities] — not just urging people to get them but also making sure that everyone has access so that they can protect themselves, waiting for the replacement to be made,” said David Kaiser, a scientist at the Montreal public health agency, in an interview.

Previously, many cities in Quebec had just recommended people get filters on their own. But the letter noted that more was needed to help residents who cannot afford to immediately pay to replace their pipes.

“Such measures would be particularly important for pregnant women, infants and young children, and would also reduce the risk for the rest of the population,” the letter read. 

Click to play video 'The secrets of Canada’s tap water, explained' The secrets of Canada’s tap water, explained
The secrets of Canada’s tap water, explained – Nov 4, 2019

The letter also calls on municipalities to “act with transparency, in informing the population about the presence of lead service lines on their territory and on progress in their response plan.” 

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In addition, the agency urged the affected cities to accelerate efforts to test water and replace all of the underground lead pipes as a long-term solution to protect public health.

READ MORE: Côte Saint-Luc has some of the worst tap water in Quebec due to lead contamination

Lead service lines are underground lead pipes that link houses and apartment buildings with eight dwellings or less to city water mains. Montreal has estimated having tens of thousands of these underground lead pipes in 21 out 33 boroughs and demerged cities on the Island of Montreal.

When water comes into contact with these pipes it can cause the lead to leach into the supply, eventually coming out of taps in affected homes.

But it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars for cities in the Montreal region to replace these pipes. While the City of Montreal previously had a goal of completing this work by 2026, it now says it will take until 2030 to finish the job.

Demerged cities could have as many as 10,000 lead pipes to replace on their own territory, although there are no confirmed estimates.

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

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Both Montreal and Côte Saint-Luc have recently posted maps of areas where lead service lines could be present, and they’ve committed to being more transparent about their testing results.

“We know that in the central part of the island there are demerged municipalities, Côte Saint-Luc, Westmount, Montreal-West and TMR, that do have housing stock that potentially has lead service lines,” Kaiser said in an interview.

Click to play video 'Côte Saint –Luc drinking water heavy with lead' Côte Saint –Luc drinking water heavy with lead
Côte Saint –Luc drinking water heavy with lead – Nov 18, 2019

Since portions of the lead service line can be on private property, the replacement sometimes requires both the property owner and the city to pay for the cost of a replacement. 

“What we know is that lead service lines need to be taken out to remove the risk of lead, that partial replacements don’t work well and so that all of those service lines both sides of those service lines should be removed as quickly as possible,” Kaiser said.

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Côte Saint-Luc Mayor Mitchell Brownstein, who said he received a copy of the letter, explained that his own city intends to implement these measures soon.

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