Liberal MPs call on Ottawa to tackle ‘national public health crisis’ of lead in drinking water

Click to play video: 'How you may be drinking lead-tainted water' How you may be drinking lead-tainted water
WATCH: How you may be drinking lead-tainted water – Nov 4, 2019

A group of federal Liberal MPs are asking their government to invest up to $400 million to combat the “health crisis” of lead-contaminated drinking water which was exposed in communities across the country by a national investigation by 10 media outlets, including Global News and the Toronto Star.

An open letter written by Hamilton MP Bob Bratina says the government “can and must” direct a portion of infrastructure spending designed to revitalize the post-COVID-19 economy into the “national public health crisis we face in the form of lead-contaminated drinking water.”

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The letter recommends the money be shared with provinces for:

  • corrosion control equipment and installation so that chemicals can be added to water supplies to reduce lead risks;
  •  the creation of a $50-million program accessible to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities so communities can identify lead service lines;
  • the creation of a personal tax credit to subsidize Canadians who replace lead pipes on their properties.

By Tuesday morning, the letter had attracted about 20 signatures of support from Liberal and Conservative MPs and senators. Bratina is contacting other federal politicians as well as mayors across the country.

“Here we have something that is a significant issue that we can pretty much eradicate within a couple of years with infrastructure money,” Bratina said. “When I read the (investigative) series, that was the trigger. I had the solid journalism that gave me the courage to bring it forward.”

The sweeping year-long investigation published last November was a collaboration of 120 journalists and researchers from 10 media outlets and nine universities in partnership with Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism.

READ MORE: One in four Ontario schools and daycares found lead in tap water last year

Drinking water in 11 cities was tested and data collected on 12,000 tap water tests across the country. A third of municipalities had levels of lead contamination exceeding Health Canada guidelines. Some cities – including Prince Rupert, B.C., Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw and Montreal — showed levels of contamination comparable to those found in Flint, Michigan.

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Following publication, many cities introduced subsidy programs to help homeowners with the costs of removing lead pipes and also invested in swifter removal of lead pipes on city property.

The MPs’ open letter says contaminated drinking water “is not a localized problem; for this reason the federal government must act in the national interest and fund solutions to this public health crisis across Canada.”

Lead is a neurotoxin that has been shown to impact cognitive development and lower IQs in children and to trigger cardiovascular and kidney problems in adults. Experts agree there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.

“A developed and flourishing nation such as Canada cannot justify turning a blind eye to the health of our people,” the letter reads. “ We have a once in a generation opportunity to address an age-old problem and a duty to follow through.”

Julie Dzerowicz, Liberal MP for Davenport in Toronto, has signed the letter, is calling for federal involvement in improving transparency and standards in water quality.

“I worry about this increase in disease and what is in our water and food,” she said in an interview. “There should be testing every day and I think that should be public knowledge, posted on a website. That would be a game changer for clean drinking water in our country.”

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READ MORE: Drinking water at thousands of Ontario schools, daycares have dangerous lead levels

The investigation discovered a patchwork of water testing policies across the country, some of which experts called deceptive.

Bruce Lanphear, a leading Canadian drinking water researcher at Simon Fraser University who consulted with Bratina, said the federal lead guideline — which sits at 5 parts per billion — is undermined by a lack of enforced standards governing how municipalities and provinces test for lead in water.

“If you don’t provide a method to sample water that’s science based, then in some ways having guidance on acceptable lead levels is silly,” he said. “If you flush the taps for a half hour before taking a sample, the results are going to be worthless.”

Michele Prevost, a Montreal-based engineering professor specializing in drinking water quality, also consulted with Bratina. She calls federal involvement a positive step forward.

“They’ve gotten creative,” she said Monday. “This is a way of saying, we are aware the numbers are too high so we’re pushing it, but in a very flexible way, leaving it to the Federal of Canadian Municipalities and provinces to put it in.”

Click to play video: 'Tainted Water: Concern’s about B.C. resort town’s pristine water' Tainted Water: Concern’s about B.C. resort town’s pristine water
Tainted Water: Concern’s about B.C. resort town’s pristine water – Dec 16, 2019

In her city of Montreal, Prevost has seen lead pipe identification and replacement accelerate dramatically since the investigation was published last fall. Within weeks, the city earmarked $557 million to replace 48,000 water pipes leading into Montreal homes by 2030.

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In Halifax, where the investigation showed a third of tap water tests exceeded the federal lead limit, city council unanimously approved a proposal to pay replacement costs for every lead service line on customer property at a cost of $14 million.

Regina city council also voted unanimously to replace all lead pipes in the city within five years through a cost-sharing program with homeowners and to add corrosion control chemicals to the city’s water system to reduce lead levels in drinking water.

Across Ontario, the investigation found more than a third of schools and daycares that tested for lead in the past three years had at least one exceedance of Health Canada’s lead guideline.

Prevost says municipalities across Canada continue to ramp up testing in schools, public libraries and fountains.

“They’re finding the same numbers. This is not going away. Municipalities are taking it seriously…(The investigation) really pushed the issue to where the best solution can happen. And it’s moving.”

Emmanuella Lambropoulos, Liberal MP for the riding of Saint Laurent in north Montreal, says constituents in her riding have been receiving letters from the city warning of potential lead exceedances in their tap water.

“It’s important to me for my community to be as safe as possible,” says Lambropoulos, who is supporting the letter. “We know there are many health risks related to lead-contaminated water. It’s a priority.”

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Francis Scarpaleggia, Liberal MP for Montreal’s Lac-Saint-Louis riding, says he is supporting the letter to sway his government towards action.

“It’s to signal to the finance minister and to the government generally that this could be included in an upcoming budget. It’s about showing the ministers and prime minister that lead in pipes is a priority to a large number of MPs.”

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