Editor’s note: This article was updated at 1:59 p.m. ET on Dec. 3, 2019 to clarify that Margaret MacDonald, a Calgary resident, said she believes she was first contacted by the city about the possibility of lead pipes a few years ago.
A pair of Calgary councillors want the city to begin planning the “accelerated removal of lead water service pipes, from both public and private properties” in the wake of the Tainted Water investigation.
Although the city already has policies designed to ensure tap water is safe, the city councillors said it was time for an accelerated plan to get the lead out, noting in a draft motion to council that the recent nationwide investigation by a consortium of media organizations including Global News, Star Calgary and Concordia’s Institute for Investigative Journalism “highlights the need for a more aggressive approach to lead pipe replacement to safeguard public health.”
More than 100 journalists across the country, including journalism students at Mount Royal University, were involved in the investigation, finding that hundreds of thousands of Canadians, including thousands in Calgary, were at risk of having lead in their drinking water, and that many residents said they weren’t adequately informed by their local governments.
The investigation has prompted Calgary residents to criticize city officials for not doing enough to resolve the issue — one that the city could tackle by spending an estimated $11 million to remove existing lead pipes.
Councillors Druh Farrell and Jeromy Farkas have responded to concerns with their new motion. If adopted, it would require the city administration to produce a new accelerated plan along with updated cost estimates within the next four months. City council is scheduled to debate the proposal on Tuesday.
The proposal by Farrell and Farkas follows other announcements across the country in a range of cities, including Halifax, Montreal, Côte Saint-Luc and Regina, which have responded to the revelations by Global News and its partners by announcing plans to improve water quality testing and replacement programs for underground lead pipes.
“In Halifax, the city is going to cover the costs, and so we’re asking (city) administration to look at Halifax and other cities,” said Councillor Farrell.
“It’s recognizing that it’s a public health issue and relying on homeowners to fix their own problem that the city needs to find a way to help. Even if we look at covering the initial cost and recouping that cost when the house is sold, there are a number of solutions we could look at it but I would consider it urgent.”
Health Canada says that “lead is considered a cumulative general poison” with developing fetuses, infants, toddlers and children being the most susceptible to its health effects. These effects include behavioural problems or a loss in IQ for children and cardiovascular and kidney problems in adults.
Lead can get into drinking water by leaching from pipes, plumbing fixtures that contain lead or lead solder. Lead service lines, the underground pipes that connect some homes to city water mains, are a major source of lead in tap water. But cities must coordinate removals with homeowners since the pipes fall on both sides of the property line.
“I find lead in our pipes to be an unacceptable risk,” said Farkas. “There’s no known safe threshold for exposure to lead. And we just feel that every single Calgarian should have access to clean drinking water. And for my part, I don’t think it’s a matter of money. It’s about doing the right thing. We can find the money to deal with this and get a result.”
Farkas added that the risks are so high that the city has no choice but to act.
“Now that we’re aware that this is an issue, we’re duty-bound to deal with it. And I would probably add that if we have $300 million to spare for a new arena, surely we have $11 million to make sure that everybody has access to clean drinking water.”
Calgary estimates there are more than 500 lead service lines on public property that connect homes to city water mains underground. But it has admitted it doesn’t know the exact number of homes that may have lead pipes on the private side of property lines due to incomplete record-keeping.
City officials believe that only a fraction of homes may be affected — mainly those built between 1939 and 1949.
“It’s a relatively small amount. But if you’re living in a house with lead in your water, it’s a significant issue and it needs to be addressed,” said Farrell. “And not every homeowner can have can afford to convert their pipes and the city should find a way to help.”
Many affected residents say they weren’t adequately informed about the risks, according to a survey of dozens of homes conducted by journalism students at Mount-Royal University in the Calgary neighbourhoods of Crescent Heights and Rosedale. The students selected the homes based on a list of 143 residences in these neighbourhoods that were believed to have lead service lines, according to an internal City of Calgary document released through freedom of information legislation.
While some residents said they didn’t even know whether the city had replaced their lead pipes, 15 out of 16 — the ones who remembered getting letters — said they didn’t get the sense that there was any emergency after reading what the city had to say about the risks of lead pipes affecting their tap water.
A spokeswoman said the City of Calgary needed more time respond to questions sent on Monday afternoon by Global News and the Star, regarding the motion and criticism from residents.
While the city and council have discussed the issue of lead pipes over the years, Farrell, who has represented Ward 7 since 2001 when she was first elected to council, says she doesn’t recall the administration sounding the alarm.
“I don’t recall this being brought up with any sense of urgency. I imagine that people who are living in houses with lead in the water would beg to differ. That’s the problem with our deep utilities, that it’s not readily apparent when there’s a problem, but the impacts can be severe. And so these issues are easy to sweep under the rug because they’re invisible.”
Engineering Technologist Kabir Mangat and his pregnant wife were in the process of moving into their Crescent Heights home in 2018 when they first received a letter from the city.
He was shocked when he discovered his home only had a lead service line on the city side — and the city hadn’t replaced it.
“They played it off… like you’re going to be responsible for your side, and they kind of scare you to be like, you’re almost wasting your time by doing it.”
Mangat said he had previously pressed the city to test his water and they came twice, with both results exceeding Health Canada’s recommended safety limit of five parts per billion (ppb), with the first one being more than twice that limit.
In 2017, the city stopped removing the public side of lead service lines if it resulted in a partial replacement and would only change its side if the homeowner agreed to change their side. Scientists say that partial replacements can be counterproductive and not helpful in reducing the amount of lead in tap water.
Margaret MacDonald, 89, has lived in her 1943 Crescent Heights home throughout most of her life. She was surprised when a letter from the city informed her of a lead service line connecting to her home. The city began mailing letters to residents with public lead service lines in 2008, and MacDonald said that she believes the city first contacted her a few years ago.
The City of Calgary tested her tap water for lead, and the results came out higher than the recommended level.
But she was even more shocked to find out that the cost to replace the line would be anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000. For MacDonald, who lives on a pension, this was out of the question.
“I nearly died when they told me,” MacDonald said.
“I don’t understand why it would be that much money, when they let it go for how many years before they realized that the lead pipe had been put into these houses.”
MacDonald represents one of hundreds of Calgary households who still live in homes with lead water pipes and who are struggling to find ways to drink water safely.
Each year, the City of Calgary says it mails letters to homes suspected of having lead service lines.
Global News reviewed different versions of the letters from 2015, 2016 and 2017, released through freedom of information legislation.
The initial letters inviting homeowners to participate in lead testing assure that the city’s water “performs better than all provincial and federal health guidelines.” However, there is no information that describes what lead is or the potential health impacts, only that lead pipes “can impact water quality.” The same is found in letters mailed to residents regarding their lead test results.
The letters also told residents to call the city if they wanted to replace the service line on their own property.
Alternatively, residents were advised to flush the pipes, use cold water instead of hot, or apply for a one-time $100 rebate for a water filter.
The City of Calgary’s health and risk communication contrast with Health Canada’s guidelines, which outline transparent communication with the public as necessary “to make well-informed decisions and take appropriate action” that addresses “the interests and priorities of the people most affected by the risk”.
Lead pipes were considered acceptable material for use in new construction under the national plumbing code until it was amended in 1975. About 50,000 Calgary homes were built before 1960, but the city says its own analysis shows only a fraction of these might have lead pipes.
While a few long-time residents of the two communities who didn’t have children felt lead was “not a big concern”, many young parents were surprised to find out about their lead service lines and wondered if their water was safe to drink.
Deseré Pressey is another young parent, who bought her Crescent Heights home two years ago. Like Mangat, Pressey only found out about her lead service line after receiving a letter from the city. Pressey said she would consider replacing her line if it posed a risk, but from what she read in the letter she received, she is unsure about the health consequences of lead in drinking water.
“Honestly, I feel like the city should take care of (the replacement),” Pressey said. “I just want to know what the studies say in relationship to what we’re actually drinking.”
William Leiss, a scientist at the University of Ottawa’s McLaughlin Centre for Population Health Risk Assessment, reviewed the City of Calgary letters and said in an interview that city officials need to improve how they communicate about the issue to ensure that residents understand the risks.
“If there are people who have lead service lines (believing) that they’re not at risk, that’s ridiculous,” Leiss said. “It means that the communication has not gotten through and that the responsible agency has to try again.”
While the City of Calgary continues to advise homeowners to control lead concentration in their drinking water by flushing their pipes and using a filter, other cities are taking a more proactive approach.
Montreal plans to test 100,000 homes in the next three years and has budgeted $557 million dollars to replace 48,000 lead pipes by 2030, with homeowners who cannot pay for the private side given 15 years to pay back the city. Low-income citizens are also provided with both a filter and one year of filtration costs.
Both Montreal and Halifax have plans to make an interactive database available to the public on homes impacted by lead. Calgary officials have also said they are exploring the possibility of sharing more information online.
Investigative reporters: Rose De Souza, Noel Harper, Jo Horwood, Christian Kindrachuk, Andrea Wong, Alannah Page, Mount Royal University
Trevor Howell, Toronto Star
Blake Lough and Mike De Souza, Global News
Faculty advisor: Janice Paskey, Mount Royal University
Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University
See the full list of “Tainted Water” series credits here: concordia.ca/watercredits.