November 2019
Investigation Shows High Levels of Lead Contamination in Canadian Tap Water

2019-11-04 2:43:01 PM

CATEGORIES: Infrastructure

More than 120 journalists from nine universities and 10 media organizations have completed a year long investigation that uncovered high levels of lead contamination in Canada’s tap water due to aging and deteriorating infrastructure. While the water generally contains no lead when it leaves municipal treatment plants, the main source of contamination are the lead service lines and plumbing fixtures that contain lead and lead solder.

Data gathered from the investigation 11 cities across Canada demonstrated that out of 12,000 tests since 2014, one third (or 33%) exceed the Health Canada’s guideline of 5 parts per billion (ppb). 260 water tests conducted in 32 municipalities in the country also showed that 39% of samples exceed the current federal guideline.

Transparency surrounding lead testing is an issue as data on lead testing is hardly released to the public – journalists had to file more than 700 requests through freedom of information legislation to get access to thousands of municipal water sample test results that were never previously posted publicly.

The uncovered records revealed that out of Ontario’s 660 municipal water systems, only 123 posted the results of tests taken at residential homes from the past two years. Of those 123 results, 42% had exceedances. From data that was posted online, there were 919 lead exceedances of the federal guideline over the past two years that exceeded 5 ppb. In some municipalities, exceedance rates were as high as 50%.

Legislation relating to lead contamination appears to be weak and inconsistent as cities across the country have different methods for lead testing. Ontario is the only province in Canada to compel a municipal government to treat water through Regulation 170/03 under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). The Regulation requires municipalities to produce an annual report, which includes how many points the water exceeds the prescribed provincial standard of 10ppb for lead (a standard that is 5ppb more than the federal guideline) and is only required to be made public if the municipality has a population of more than 10,000 people. 

While the federal government has a lead standard in place, there is no federally mandated testing protocol nor are there mandated lead pipe removal requirements. If such protocols or requirements were developed, similar to the guidelines in place today, there is not much more the federal government could do to enforce them. The management, treatment, and distribution of drinking water is a provincial responsibility while the day-to-day functions of water systems is a municipal responsibility.

The Canadian Environmental Law Association this week published a report with five recommendations to address the risks associated with lead, including a recommendation to the Ontario government to regulate stricter mandatory minimum standards. Part of this would include changing legislation to require at least 75% of municipal lead service lines be replaces within three to five years.

However, while many water officials for municipalities agree on the need to remove lead, they also argue that municipalities are unable to pay for it.

In Hamilton, for example, it will take up to 40 years to remove the estimated 20,000 lead water pipes. Windsor has said it will require at least $90 million to remove 15,000 lead lines on private property. This does not include the 6,000 lead pipes on city property. Windsor has instead treated its water system to address corrosive water and prevent lead contamination that has resulted in a considerable decline in lead levels.

The Law Association also would like to see SDWA amended to align the prescribed provincial water lead level standard with Health Canada’s and apply Regulation 170/03 to all municipalities for stricter mandatory minimum standards.

For more information, please see below:

Toronto Star: Canada-wide investigation reveals dangerous levels of lead in tap water

Global News: Is Canada’s tap water safe? Thousands of test results show high lead levels across the country

Canadian Environmental Law Association Report: Lead In Our Drinking Water


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