When Oakville Mayor Rob Burton was sending his three children to public schools in Halton Region, health risks from lead in their drinking water was never a thought.
That has changed.
“While they were there, they were obviously exposed,” Burton said in response to “Tainted Water,” a national investigation into lead in drinking water by a partnership of nine universities and 10 media organizations, including the Toronto Star, the Ryerson School of Journalism, Global News and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism.
“I think it was a revelation to a lot of people.”
On Nov. 20, Burton was one of 24 Halton Region councillors who voted unanimously in favour of a resolution calling on Ontario’s education ministry to remove lead pipes from the region’s schools.
Theirs was one of many public calls for action on tainted drinking water aimed at provincial and local politicians across the country, including demands for replacement of lead pipes running to homes and lead fixtures inside schools, better testing, and greater transparency around elevated lead levels and their health risks. The reforms come amid more than 250 news reports across the country reporting the findings of the tainted water investigation.
Lead is a neurotoxin that has been shown to impact cognitive development and lower IQ in children, and to trigger cardiovascular and kidney problems in adults. Experts agree there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.
Among the responses to the investigation:
- Toronto’s infrastructure and environment committee asked Toronto Water’s general manager to report on programs that could help homeowners fund replacement of lead pipes. That report, tabled Thursday, details options — such as low-interest loans or a self-funded loan program the city could offer an estimated 35,000 homeowners with lead pipes — that have been offered in other Canadian cities for years. Toronto’s chief financial officer is expected to report back in March on how the city might assist homeowners with lead pipes.
- In Quebec, two provincial cabinet ministers sent a letter to mayors across the province announcing an improved testing standard for lead, a deadline of next year to meet it and plans to make municipalities more transparent with the results. Meanwhile, the city of Montreal has committed to pay the upfront cost for homeowners to remove lead plumbing through a loan program that allows them to pay it back over 15 years.
- In Regina, which showed some of the highest lead levels in the country, city council voted unanimously to replace all lead pipes in the city within five years, explore a cost-sharing program to help homeowners fund replacement of lead plumbing on their properties, and add corrosion control chemicals to the city’s water system to reduced lead levels in drinking water. “Everybody sees the urgency in this,” Mayor Michael Fougere told the Star. “There was a reaction to the stories, no question.”
- Calgary city council will debate a motion tabled by two councillors calling for lead pipe removal across the city, citing the tainted water investigation for highlighting the need for “a more aggressive approach … to safeguard public health.”
Burton’s concerns about lead levels in schools stem from the investigation’s analysis of provincial data. It found more than 2,400 schools and daycares across the province exceeded the federal guideline for lead in drinking water over the past two years, some with levels reaching more than 200 times the five parts per billion threshold.
Halton District School Board alone had 304 instances of exceeding the federal lead guideline in the past two years, with an overall failure rate of 11 per cent.
It was all news to many regional politicians, Burton says.
“Since education has been starved for a long time, I appreciate they weren’t rolling in money to go after the problem,” he said. “It’s a provincial responsibility so we thought we would call on the Ministry of Education to get the lead out.”
The Nov. 20 resolution by Burton and Halton Hills Mayor Rick Bonnette was followed by a letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce, calling for swift action.
Burton says there has been no response from the minister.
“For all we know, they could be beavering away, figuring out how to act on it,” he said. “Or they could be keeping their head down, hoping it will all blow over.”
The latter, he said, would be an abdication of the province’s responsibility for schools.
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“We just want the government to do its job, and I think anybody thinks the job of the ministry is to teach kids and keep them safe while they do it.”
Lecce did not agree to an interview for this story.
Questioned last month at Queen’s Park about the tainted water investigation, Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said parents and students could be better informed when lead overages are found in their schools. While the ministry recommends schools and boards be proactive with the information — and some are — the investigation found many students and parents unaware of sometimes repeated and dramatic lead spikes in their schools.
“I’ve spoken with the minister of education to look to how we can remedy this situation going forward,” Yurek told provincial legislators last month. “We know we can do better.”
Yurek did not agree to an interview for this story, but his ministry confirmed in a written statement on Monday that there remains “no regulatory requirement for facilities to notify parents.”
Another drinking water threat revealed in the investigation last month is generating heated outrage in the town of Tottenham, an hour’s drive north of Toronto, where residents are demanding reforms to address a problem dating back more than a decade.
Data showed elevated levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) in Tottenham’s drinking water for the past 15 years, including a string of annual overages between 2005 and 2015. While the town’s water tests currently average out to just under the federal THMs limit of 100 parts per billion, they include some done as recently as October in which samples were found to be over the limit.
Long-term exposure to THMs can result in ailments ranging from cancer to pregnancy complications and damage to the heart, liver and central nervous system.
“It is absolutely electric here,” said Nancy McBride, co-founder of the grassroots community group Tottenham-Water, following meeting of about 200 residents. “People are motivated. The article really validated the feelings of people here and empowered them to demand action and retribution for what has happened to them over the years without their knowledge.”
Organizers are calling on the township of New Tecumseth to: create a plan to reduce THMs levels down to 40 ppb; designate an independent authority to gather data and report on levels of THMs and other contaminants; ask Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada to conduct an epidemiological study to determine the impacts on residents; convene an independent inquiry into how THMs, iron and chlorine levels in Tottenham drinking water “could continue from 2003 to the present without appropriate remediation …(and) who will be held responsible for remediation.”
Lawyer David Donnelly told the community meeting that anecdotal evidence suggests there may be grounds for litigation against the township.
“The courts in Ontario are starting to take issues like this very seriously,” he said. “The truth of the matter is, it’s a very common-sense proposition for your municipal leaders to follow your lead: You pay their salary, you elect them to office, and you have the simplest, common-sense thing to do to hold them accountable.”
Mike Balkwill, campaign director with water quality advocacy group Wellington Water Watchers, said the demands will “put the town on notice that the community wants action.”
New Tecumseth Mayor Rick Milne declined repeated interview requests for this story. In a written statement, he said the town’s drinking water supply currently meets provincial regulations and that the town has taken short-term steps to reduce THMs until it can complete a new pipeline bringing in water from the town of Beeton.
Even with the new pipeline source, Milne wrote that Tottenham’s current ground water wells will continue to supplement the town’s water supply.