Kathy Minorgan has been living in Montreal West for over 40 years. As they try to avoid using wasteful plastic, she and her husband only drink tap water.
They wish they knew if their water was laced with lead, but have no idea.
“I do not know whether it’s lead-free at all,” Minorgan told Global News.
Montreal West, which has a population of about 5,000, is full of homes built before 1970, which are the ones most likely to have underground lead pipes that link the houses to the city water mains. Minorgan’s home was built in the 1920s.
“No one has come and taken water from our house to test,” she said.
She’s far from alone. Like many other Canadian cities, Montreal West doesn’t know how many households are connected to water mains with lead pipes.
“Some of that infrastructure has been there for over 100 years, and people may have changed that,” explained Montreal West mayor Beny Masella.
The City of Montreal has estimated that there are tens of thousands of lead service lines in 21 out of 33 boroughs and demerged cities on the Island of Montreal.
Quebec Environment Ministry data suggests the problem may be significant for people who live in older homes in Montreal West.
In 2018, for example, nine out of 20 tap water samples collected by technicians for Montreal West had lead levels exceeding Health Canada’s new recommended limit of five parts per billion (ppb), according to ministry numbers released to Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism through access to information legislation.
“It’s still a significant number, don’t get me wrong. We can’t say for certain if it’s 20 or 30 per cent; we don’t test house by house by house,” Masella explained.
Other sampling data released by the provincial government revealed 13 tests with lead levels above the current Quebec limit of 10 ppb in Montreal West between 2015 and 2018.
This is the seventh-highest total in the province during this time period, following Montreal, Gatineau, Côte Saint-Luc, Westmount, Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts and Sainte-Thérèse.
The tests were conducted under a provincial testing method that requires technicians to flush taps for five minutes, prior to collecting samples of water.
The provincial government has said it will no longer use this testing method when it updates its regulations in 2020, in response to criticism that it doesn’t measure the exposure to lead in water that has been sitting in lead pipes for an extended period of time.
The Quebec government has also announced plans to adopt Health Canada’s new recommended limit of five ppb in the coming months.
Scientists, meanwhile, say there is no safe level of lead.
Health Canada describes lead as 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.
Masella said that once Quebec adopts the new rules, the problem might grow significantly.
“The number may increase, but I have no idea,” he explained.
Masella says every time the city digs up a road, residents are encouraged to change their side of a lead pipe while the city changes theirs.
“Lead is so well-known as a toxic substance, so yes, I think they should be throwing money at it rather than other things,” said Minorgan.
“Mayor Masella should send someone out to check all the houses,” said fellow Montreal West resident Mary Corner.
Masella, however, says he’s not ready to do that yet.
“When we get the new guidelines, we will see where we go from there,” he said.
Meanwhile, Minorgan is planning to outfit her kitchen sink with a filter. Her husband has high blood pressure, which is a well-known side effect of prolonged lead exposure.
“I have grandchildren living above me, lots of children near us,” she said.
“I think it affects children much more than adults, and it’s something we have the knowledge to correct and we should be correcting.”
— with files from Laurence Brisson Dubreuil
See the full list of “Tainted Water” series credits here: concordia.ca/watercredits.