Four years ago, Rhonda Hanah bought a 1940s house in Thunder Bay with a wide deck, large bay windows that let light into the dining room and 21 metres of lead pipe underground.
Reporters, working as part of a national collaboration of more than 120 journalists from nine universities and 10 media organizations, including the Toronto Star and the Institute for Investigative Journalism, tested in January when lead levels are more likely to be low, and Hanah’s home tested at 11.8 parts per billion — twice the national guideline of 5 ppb.
City tests dating back to 2002 show consistently high levels of lead in Hanah’s previous and current Thunder Bay homes. Among the results: 38 ppb in 2008, 21.3 ppb in 2015, 13.5 ppb in 2016 and 10.2 ppb last year.
“When I moved to the city in the 80s…I didn’t know about lead,” says the 54-year-old artist. “Even though we’re in a city that has a lead problem, there’s very little awareness of lead.”
Removing lead plumbing — pipes and fixtures — is the only reliable way to eliminate the risk of lead in drinking water. The logistics, though, are complicated and the cost well beyond what local governments can bear.
And that means the costs often fall to homeowners. In smaller municipalities facing shrinking tax bases as local businesses close and young families leave to follow jobs, the problem falls to seniors and those who can’t afford several thousand dollars to dig up the pipes.
Lead pipes are ubiquitous in Thunder Bay, where provincial data show 203 exceedances of the federal guideline over the past two years — 31 per cent of all tests.
“I absolutely worry about it,” says Tony Santos, manager of compliance and quality control for the city’s water system. “I worry about it every minute. That’s my job. The lead service connections are our downfall.”
City records show that about 10,000 of Thunder Bay’s homes have lead pipes on the homeowner side of the property line; add another 7,500 lines on the city side.
In a survey of 50 Ontario municipalities, only nine told reporters they have a loan or subsidy program for lead pipe replacement. Twenty-eight conduct partial replacements of service lines, but only up to homeowners’ property lines. Thunder Bay offers neither.
Pipe removal and replacement typically costs around $5,000 for residents and $5,000 for municipalities. Thunder Bay estimates it could cost $87 million to replace the lead infrastructure and could take another 50 years to complete.
Santos says that for years the city has been asking the province for help to have pipes removed but is always told no funding is available. “They’re the regulator… they’ve set the rules… and expect us to foot the bill to meet those rules.
“That’s the bottom line. At the end of the day, it comes down to money.”
The city has been trying to address the problem with its “Get the Lead Out” campaign, which offers free testing. Officials also encourage homeowners to replace their side of the service line when the city replaces its side.
Santos’ parents have lead lines feeding their home. The cost of removal, he says, would be $20,000 because the pipe sits beneath a double driveway. “They are pensioners. How are they going to be able to afford that?”
The city of Guelph offers $2,000 grants to homeowners to replace their lead lines. The city also offers $100 rebates for lead water filters — especially useful to renters.
Since 2007, 686 full or partial lead service lines have been replaced through the city programs. An estimated 130 lines remain.
Hanah replaced the lead pipes in her previous home in 2012 (digging up 12 feet of her front yard herself to avoid a $9,000 bill). But she says she can’t afford to remove pipes today.
She has stopped consuming water from her tap, hauling drinking water from a friend’s house.
For years, she says she has suffered headaches, numbness and memory problems. While she has no evidence, she believes lead is a “huge culprit” in these health problems.
“I’m sure I’ve always been over the acceptable limit everywhere I’ve lived in Thunder Bay.” she says. “So, that’s decades of exposure.”
And dealing with the problem is all the more difficult when you’re ill, she says.
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“That’s why people give up and just drink the lead.”
Some cities have made the decision to remove lead pipes entirely.
Until last month, Montreal left it up to homeowners to remove their lead pipes at a cost of up to $5,000. The vast majority didn’t do it.
But after reviewing the findings of this investigation, the city will now force about 24,000 property owners to replace their lead water lines as part of a $557-million commitment to remove lead from drinking water by 2030.
For Montrealers who don’t hire a contractor to do the job, the city will do it and send them the bill, which can be paid over 15 years.
“We’re sending a strong message to say, ‘Take your responsibilities and do the change.’ And if it’s not being done, we’ll take care of it,” Montreal mayor Valérie Plante said.
In 2000, Madison, Wisc., became the first major city in North America to start replacing lead pipes on both sides of the property line. The city paid half the bill for homeowners who replaced their service lines, and those who didn’t faced fines of up to $1,000 (USD) a day. It cost the city $15.5 million to replace more than 8,000 pipes over 12 years, not including the cost to homeowners.
Susan Bauman, Madison’s mayor from 1997 to 2003, recalled the city initially considered lowering lead levels by treating the water with the chemical orthophosphate. But there were fears it would lead to algae blooms.
“It might not be politically popular,” she said. “(But) bite the bullet and take care of the problem…The cost in human lives and human intelligence is such that it’s got to be taken care of.”
In September, U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan introduced a bill to invest $100 billion to remove lead pipes and lead paint from homes, arguing that as many as 10 million homes in the U.S. get tap water through lead pipes.
Similar measures are being proposed at the state level.
In February, Wisconsin’s governor Tony Evers proposed $70 million over two years to improve the state’s drinking water and remove lead service lines across the state.
The city of Lansing, Mich., removed its last lead service line in December 2016, ending a 12-year effort that replaced 14,000 pipes at a cost of $44.5 million.
“There’s a whole conspiracy of silence around this issue,” said former Lansing mayor Virgil Bernero. He says health and city officials pushed back against the idea, closing ranks and “we started getting pounded and accused of trying to incite panic. They were basically saying shut up — as a public official you need to be quiet about this.”
It took the Flint water crisis to show that lead pipes are a “ticking time bomb,” he said.
“Do you know what we learned from Flint? Nothing. Don’t ask, don’t tell. That is our policy on lead pipes…It’s a total false sense of security.”
His advice: “Don’t buy it. Keep digging.”