The Quebec Environment Ministry has sent a warning to the city of Côte Saint-Luc for failing to produce reports on the quality of its drinking water for five consecutive years, allegedly violating a regulation under the provincial Environment Quality Act.
The warning is the latest in a series of revelations uncovered in a joint investigation involving Global News and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism.
The investigation revealed that Côte Saint-Luc had one of the highest amounts of tap water samples exceeding Quebec’s standard for lead in drinking water in recent years, mainly due to aging underground lead pipes that are connecting many homes in the city to water mains. The city has known there were high lead levels in local tap water samples at homes since 2013, but only announced an action plan to address the problem after Global News and its partners published the investigation.
Municipalities or water operators in Quebec are required to produce annual reports that provide an overview of their drinking water. In Côte Saint-Luc, senior city officials told Global News and the Institute for Investigative Journalism that they were exempt from the regulation since their water supply comes from the City of Montreal.
The ministry disagreed, explaining in an email that it warned the city to submit the missing reports before Jan. 10, “in order to ensure it is following the regulation respecting drinking water quality.”
“To my knowledge, we released online all the information with respect to the tests they asked for,” Brownstein said.
Global News and the Institute for Investigative Journalism have been asking Côte Saint-Luc for its missing reports since Oct. 30, 2019.
A spokesman for the city said on Dec. 13 that he was looking into the matter and Brownstein said on Sunday that he had only seen test results for lead in tap water and that these were submitted to the government.
“Those are the test results that were used by the health authorities to advise us if our water was safe,” Brownstein wrote in an email.
The mayor also highlighted recent efforts his administration has made to address the problem, in the wake of reports by Global News and its partners.
The City of Côte Saint-Luc has promised a $50 rebate on filters for affected households, as well as announcing plans to test tap water in 3,200 homes starting in 2020 and to accelerate the replacement of the underground lead service lines.
The city also proactively posted all of its test results since 2013, revealing that more than 60 per cent of the 238 homes tested had lead levels exceeding Health Canada’s recommended limit of five parts per billion (ppb). Experts say this failure rate could be higher since Côte Saint-Luc, like other cities, has been flushing water for five minutes before taking samples, producing a result that fails to capture water that has been sitting in lead pipes for an extended period.
The Quebec government has promised to adopt a different testing method, recommended by Health Canada, in the new year to more accurately capture lead exposure in households.
Across the city, residents complained they were never informed about the risks of tainted tap water.
Sivan Rehan has lived in her Côte Saint-Luc home with her husband and two kids for 11 years. A few weeks ago, she learned her tap water could be laced with lead.
“I heard about it the first time from the Global report,” she said.
An independent test commissioned by Concordia’s Institute for Investigative Journalism found her water contains about seven parts per billion of lead, slightly above the recommended federal limit.
“That’s very disturbing to me. I’m very unhappy about it,” she said.
Scientists say that children are especially vulnerable to lead since their smaller bodies absorb more of the neurotoxin than adults. Rehan’s says her kids always drank a lot of tap water in the home. Her son has ADHD, one of the known potential side effects of lead exposure in children.
“It’s something we struggled with for many years. Now learning this, knowing that it might’ve gotten worse because of the lead in the water, that’s devastating for me,” she said.
“I’m appalled by the results,” Goldman told Global News, who has two young children and is now drinking only bottled water.
“It’s not okay to be exposed to lead over five parts per billion, so if you’re in that group you need to protect yourself,” said Michèle Prévost, a civil engineering professor at Polytechnique Montréal, who has advised governments around the world about drinking water safety.
Prévost also warned that some of the test results in Côte Saint-Luc may underestimate the actual exposure since technicians flushed the taps before taking samples to analyze.
The residents Global News spoke to said they would have changed their behaviour if someone had warned them.
“That’s devastating for me. It makes me very angry. Very, very angry,” said Rehan.
The city attempted to address some concerns and provide advice on how to reduce risks by hosting an information session in partnership with regional Montreal public health officials last Thursday.
“What we’re trying to do now is ensure people have filters so no matter what the level of the water is, they should have close to zero results in their tests,” said Mayor Brownstein.
While she waits for the city to change her pipe, Rehan isn’t taking any chances. She’ll be installing water filters on all her taps.
“For five years the city knew and did nothing and they probably wouldn’t have done anything for the next five years if the report didn’t come out,” she said.
with files from Lea Sabbah, Institute for Investigative Journalism
See the full list of “Tainted Water” series credits here: concordia.ca/watercredits.