Hundreds of thousands of Canadians are consuming tap water laced with high levels of lead leaching from aging and deteriorating infrastructure.
A year-long investigation by more than 120 journalists from nine universities and 10 media organizations, including the Toronto Star and the Institute for Investigative Journalism, collected test results that properly measure exposure to lead in 11 cities across Canada. Out of 12,000 tests since 2014, one third — 33 per cent —exceeded the national safety guideline of 5 parts per billion.
Reporters also fanned out to 32 cities and towns across the country — from Victoria, B.C., to Grand Pre, N.S. — to knock on doors in neighborhoods with older homes. With the help of residents who volunteered to take part, the teams conducted 260 water tests using accepted standards and submitted samples to accredited labs. The results showed 39 per cent of samples exceeded the current federal guideline.
Experts call threats from lead exposure a simmering public health crisis. But many Canadians remain unaware of serious long-term health consequences because government oversight is often lax and secretive.
Canada is blessed with the world’s third largest renewable freshwater supply covering about 12 per cent of the country’s surface area. But while Canada may be a global water superpower with a reputation for snow-capped mountains, crystal clear lakes and free flowing rivers, lead exceedances in tap water are chronic and sometimes extreme, the investigation found.
Test results from samples taken in cities including Prince Rupert, B.C., Regina, Moose Jaw, Saskatoon and Montreal showed lead levels comparable to — and in some cases beyond — those of U.S. cities that have made international headlines for their tainted water.
“I’m surprised,” said Bruce Lanphear, a leading Canadian drinking water researcher who reviewed Canadian lead levels obtained by the investigation. “These are quite high given the kind of attention that has been given to Flint, Michigan, as having such extreme problems. Even when I compare this to some of the other hotspots in the United States, like Newark, like Pittsburgh, the levels here are quite high.”
Historically, Toronto’s lead levels were among the highest in Canada, with as many as half of tests exceeding the provincial lead standard in 2008. Shortly after, the city began adding chemicals to the water to reduce corrosion in pipes. Today, less than two per cent of samples exceed.
Lead testing data in Canada is rarely made public and some municipalities aren’t required to test despite an estimated 500,000 homes with antiquated lead pipes.
“I’m shocked, I’m disappointed, I’m angry,” said Michèle Prévost, a Quebec engineering professor specializing in drinking water lead levels. “The one thing that’s really missing across Canada is transparency.”
Lead tests are conducted differently across the country. One popular method is heavily criticized for failing to provide accurate results. And when problems are identified, only one province, Ontario, has a regulation that compels municipalities to treat water.
Among the investigation’s findings:
- In Ontario, government data posted online shows 919 lead exceedances of the federal guideline of 5 parts per billion in lead tests of tap water over the past two years. Exceedance rates reach as high as 50 per cent in some municipalities. In London, half of the 36 tests conducted last year exceeded the guideline. Windsor had the highest number of exceedances at 289 — a quarter of tests conducted over the past two years. Tests in the town of Terrace Bay on the north shore of Lake Superior exceeded national standards nearly 21 per cent of the time. Many water systems across the province didn’t test for lead at all in the past two years. Of the province’s approximately 660 municipal water systems, only 123 — one in five — posted results of tests taken at homes during the past two years. Of those, 42 per cent had exceedances.
- Across Quebec, municipal workers have traditionally flushed pipes for five minutes before collecting samples — a method criticized as irresponsible because it under-represents lead levels. The premier announced changes to that testing policy two weeks ago after the provincial government reviewed data provided by this investigation. Despite flushing taps for five minutes, lead test results in Montreal over 15 years revealed more than 9,000 exceedances. Among them were lead levels of 72 ppb in a 1928 two-storey row house in Ahuntsic, 60 ppb in a wartime home in Rosemont and 54 ppb in a mid-century bungalow in Nouveau-Bordeaux — all well above the current federal guideline. Documents also show 496 exceedances of the province’s 10 ppb guideline in 96 cities and towns across Quebec since 2015, with results as high as 360 ppb.
- High municipal lead levels were registered in Saskatchewan and Alberta, where there is no mandatory public posting of lead test results. Thirty per cent of Edmonton lead tests show exceedances of the federal guideline including a result of 428 ppb in 2017 — 86 times the federal guideline. And in Moose Jaw, Regina and Saskatoon, homes fed by municipal lead service lines averaged 22 ppb between 2013 and 2018 — four times the national guideline. Regina resident Steve Wolfson and his wife Penny, who care for their nine-year-old twin granddaughters full-time, first learned from the city two years ago that their home had lead readings of more than 10 times the federal guideline. “If you know there is lead running through pipes into someone’s home and there’s children there, you need to be more proactive about it and tell them,” he says. “We aren’t letting people in this city know that their kids are in danger.”
- In Prince Rupert, B.C., 21 of the 25 homes tested by reporters exceeded Health Canada’s guidelines for lead with results reaching as high as 70 ppb. A sample taken from Leona Peterson’s kitchen faucet last December registered 15.6 ppb — three times the guideline. The Indigenous mother and her son always drank from the tap without any knowledge of lead in the water, she says. She even used tap water to feed him as a newborn. Now, she feels betrayed. “I contaminated the hell out of him,” she says. “Being a single mom that has to worry on a daily basis about water … just feels really pathetic … Is this Canada? Are we living in Canada?”
- In Nova Scotia, where about half the province draws drinking water from private wells, property owners are responsible for testing but are not compelled to do so. Thirty years ago, a study found 29 per cent of private wells in Hackett’s Cove exceeded the guideline, which was then 50 ppb. Little has changed. Samples taken by reporters at homes tested as high as 80 ppb. In Halifax, the city’s test data shows nearly a third of samples taken at homes over the past several years have exceeded the federal lead guideline. The high failure rates reflect the city’s testing method of sampling after water it sits stagnant for several hours. Experts say this method better captures lead levels.
There is no safe level of lead, a fact agreed upon by Health Canada and the World Health Organization. For decades, countries have been working to reduce the amount of lead citizens are exposed to. In Canada, it has been banned in paint and gasoline, tin cans and toys. Today, drinking water and food are the leading source of lead for Canadians.
Lead pipes in new construction were banned in 1975 when the national building code was amended. But old lead service lines owned by municipalities continue to feed water into residences and businesses, and there is no comprehensive inventory. Similarly, the number of Canadian homes that have lead plumbing is unknown; 500,000 is an estimate. Homes built before 1975 are particularly vulnerable, although lead solder was used on pipes until 1986. Plumbing fixtures such as bronze and brass taps were another source of lead until 2013 when federal regulations changed.
“Imagine drinking the water through a … 30-foot long lead straw,” said Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and civil engineering at Virginia Tech who helped expose the water crisis in Flint, Mich., in 2015. ”Sometimes that water comes through it okay, but every now and then a chunk of lead falls off into the water. If it’s water you use for cooking or drinking, it can have real serious health consequences.”
A single glass of water highly tainted with lead can elevate a child’s blood lead level to require hospitalization, he said.
In March, when Health Canada cut the guideline for acceptable lead levels in drinking water in half — to 5 ppb from 10 ppb — it noted that reduction in IQ can occur even at concentrations as low as 5 ppb. At high levels of exposure, lead can damage the prefrontal cortex, contribute to anti-social behaviour and behavioural problems in children, cause prenatal growth abnormalities and is an established risk factor for hypertension, chronic kidney disease and tremors in adults.
More than 400,000 deaths are attributable to lead exposure — from all sources — every year in the U.S., according to a 2018 study co-authored by Lanphear and published in the Lancet.
“(Lead) has been linked with not only IQ deficits in children, but spontaneous abortion and miscarriage in women, pre-term birth in women, hypertension in adults, premature deaths from cardiovascular disease in adults,” Lanphear said. “It’s clearly a major public health problem, even if it’s an insidious one.”
A 2008 toxicology report from Toronto Public Health, obtained by the Star, estimated that 10,560 children in the city were at risk of high lead levels in their blood from lead plumbing. It’s the last time the city conducted such an analysis.
There are also economic impacts. A 2013 Health Canada risk management strategy predicted an economic benefit of more than $9 billion a year “if the exposure of Canadian children to lead could be eliminated.” It factored the number of children exposed each year and the impact on intellectual development and lifetime earnings.
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Yet lead in drinking water persists as a public health crisis in Canada, enabled by a patchwork of policies and no federally mandated testing protocols.
The federal government can provide infrastructure funding and Health Canada can set national guidelines, but they don’t have jurisdiction to enforce. The management, treatment and distribution of drinking water fall to the provinces while the day-to-day, hands-on operation of water systems fall to the municipalities.
That lack of federal oversight is in stark contrast to the U.S. where the Environmental Protection Agency imposes legal standards for testing and public disclosure, including an annual Consumer Confidence Report provided by water utilities to homeowners that details lead test results.
“If that’s not public, that’s a problem,” said Tom Neltner, a chemical engineer at the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Defense Fund. “Where you have transparency you have advocacy, and where you have advocacy you have action.”
In Canada, there are no federally mandated lead pipe removal requirements.
Health Canada recommends lead testing at residential taps, but B.C. and Alberta don’t require municipalities to do so. During consultations with Health Canada about the new guideline, many provinces lamented the high cost of testing at residential taps and in schools. Manitoba said testing would be a “significant burden.”
In Ontario, the 919 lead exceedances of the federal guideline over the past two years reflect the hundreds of thousands of lead lines feeding homes and businesses across the province.
“The current state of drinking water delivery in Ontario means that Ontario residents, their children, pregnant women, and their unborn fetuses, may still be at risk of lead exposure and lead poisoning from the lead plumbing components in their homes, schools, daycares, and workplaces,” reads a new report from the Canadian Environmental Law Association to be published this week.
The report calls on the province to change legislation to require a minimum of 75 per cent of municipal lead service lines be replaced within three to five years.
Water officials across Ontario agree on the need to get the lead out. But they repeatedly told reporters that municipalities are many years — or decades — away from being able to pay for it.
In Hamilton, it will take up to 40 years to remove the estimated 20,000 lead water pipes feeding homes based on the current rate of replacement, the city says on its website.
In Windsor, it would take at least $90 million to remove approximately 15,000 lead lines on private property, not including the 6,000 lead pipes on city property.
“It’s not something we have the funding to do,” said Garry Rossi, vice-president of water operations for Enwin Utilities, the distribution company that services the Windsor Utilities Commission. “It’s a big number and a big problem.”
Instead, in 2016, the city began treating its water system to address corrosive water and prevent lead leaching into the pipes. There has been a “steep decline” in lead levels. Rossi said the city’s 289 exceedances of the national guideline were found in 155 homes and businesses.
London’s exceedances were in homes and businesses targeted by the city because they had lead service lines “and are therefore expected to have higher lead levels,” said the city’s water quality manager, Dan Huggins.
In Terrace Bay, chief administrative officer Jon Hall said that while the township has treated its water with chemicals to reduce lead levels, there have been ongoing exceedances.
“Our ultimate goal is to see any lead service connections eventually replaced,” he wrote in an email. “The design of a long-term fix is largely dependent on infrastructure funding available, which would need to include assistance from both the federal and provincial levels of government.”
Even if municipalities did have the means to aggressively remove lead lines, most wouldn’t even know where to start digging. There is no provincial or federal inventory of lead lines.
Reporters surveyed 50 Ontario municipalities, and half reported they could not estimate how many lead pipes on public and private property are feeding homes. In other cases, water officials offered broad guesses.
“Very difficult to estimate — perhaps 10,000 (lead lines on private property),” wrote London water quality manager Huggins.
Port Colborne environmental compliance supervisor Darlene Suddard wrote: “We are not required to know (the number of remaining lead pipes).”
Ryan Peterson, chief operator of the Kenora Water Treatment plant, wrote: “We are aware of a few private lead services but it is possible that there are more we are not aware of.”
Sixteen municipalities provided estimates totalling more than 180,000 lead lines delivering water to homes and buildings. An estimated 30,000 of these lead lines are in Toronto but the records providing their locations are among tens of thousands of paper documents that cannot be easily searched, officials said.
For a full list of credits see thestar.com/taintedwater