Hundreds of thousands of Canadians could be consuming tap water laced with high levels of lead leaching from aging infrastructure and plumbing, according to a year-long investigation by nine universities and 10 media organizations, including Global News and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism.
The investigation’s analysis compared lead levels across Canada with those in Flint, Mich., during the American city’s 2015 tainted water scandal.
The causes of lead in drinking water vary with the supply source, water chemistry and infrastructure. Flint’s crisis sprang from a decision to draw water from a more corrosive water source into an old and deteriorating lead pipe infrastructure. The result was a perfect public health storm. Headlines around the world highlighted not just lead-contaminated drinking water but the death of 12 people from a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak as bacteria spread through the water system.
READ MORE: Is Canada’s tap water safe? Thousands of test results show high lead levels across the country
Canadian cities have many reasons underlying their lead problems. Highly corrosive water, thousands of kilometres of aging lead pipes buried underground and dated, sometimes inadequate, testing methods are evident in some of the worst lead hot spots across the country.
Canadian water officials reject any comparisons to Flint. But lead levels flowing from taps are comparable across jurisdictions, according to three leading experts who reviewed the investigation’s analysis. And Canadian lead levels in some cities are conspicuously similar to Flint.
1:12I’m shocked’: Lead control expert says there needs to be more transparency in Canada
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“We have Flints right across Canada because of the absence of regulation to push the numbers down,” says Michèle Prévost, a Quebec engineering professor and international expert in lead levels in drinking water. “I do understand the water producers to be timid with this to be compared with a terrible situation with bad water treatment, bad distribution. But the fact of the matter is we’re talking about similar lead levels.”
Prince Rupert, B.C.
In this British Columbia coastal town, testing conducted by the investigation found an average lead result of 14.1 parts per billion (ppb) in water tested after a six-hour resting period in houses without lead service lines (LSLs). In Flint, 2015 data using a similar testing method averaged 10.5 ppb in homes with a mix of lead and non-lead pipes. Eighty per cent of the Prince Rupert samples exceeded the Canadian lead guideline of five ppb versus 40 per cent in Flint.
Comment: “Prince Rupert has a problem with lead contamination in the water that’s at least on par with Flint, perhaps might be a little bit worse,” said Bruce Lanphear, a drinking water researcher at Simon Fraser University who reviewed the investigation’s data. “These levels need to be brought under control. And it’s not enough … to say flushing will take care of the problem. It’s not a solution.”
Response: “The situation you are comparing is apples and oranges,” wrote Veronika Stewart, a spokesperson for the city. “Though in the information you provide Prince Rupert and Flint do show a similar percentage of households with first flush samples … the reason Flint’s water presented a health crisis and Prince Rupert’s doesn’t is because of the presence of lead pipes and service lines within Flint’s water distribution system that created acutely toxic levels of lead in the worst households.”
In contrast to Flint, B.C. health officials said, Prince Rupert does not have lead service lines, pointing to lead solder, brass fixtures and corrosive water as the source of the problem.
“We have been aware that Prince Rupert has corrosive water for some time and that older buildings are at risk of leaching lead from plumbing, solder and fixtures into drinking water. Northern Health Authority (NHA) has been working with Prince Rupert to advise residents to flush water in the short term, while Prince Rupert addresses corrosion in the long term,” wrote Dr. David Byres, an assistant deputy minister of health in B.C. and Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial Health Officer.
In response, Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and civil engineering at Virginia Tech who conducted lead testing in Flint at the time of the crisis, said many Flint homes with the highest lead levels were fed by pipes that were not made of lead.
“Flint was bad even without lead pipe and Prince Rupert is worse.”
Data from both cities comparing homes that don’t have lead lines show about a quarter of Flint homes with copper pipes exceeded the current Canadian lead guideline versus 80 per cent of Prince Rupert homes tested this year.
“(Lead exceedances are) frequently found in systems without corrosion control because of the presence of legacy solders and leaded brass in the absence of (lead service lines),” said Prévost, who called the comparison between the two cities “scientifically defendable.”
In Regina, data using the six-hour standing tests of homes known to have lead service lines showed an average of 12.8 ppb and a 57 per cent exceedance rate of the federal guideline. In Flint, comparable test results produced a 21.6 average and a 66 per cent exceedance rate.
Comment: “This is a serious lead issue,” said Edwards, who helped expose the water crisis in Flint, Mich., in 2015. “It’s worse than Flint, and you saw how people were criticized for not disclosing that problem in Flint.”
Response: “We reject the comparison to Flint, Mich.,” reads a written statement from Pat Wilson, the city’s director of waterworks. “Ninety-five per cent of city-owned water service connections today are lead-free and in 2019, city records show that less than 3,600 connections remain … The city is proactively working internally and with residents to treat lead connections in Regina.”
Moose Jaw’s average of 25 ppb using a six-hour standing sample in homes with lead lines is slightly above Flint’s 21.6 ppb level for the same criteria. The city’s exceedance rate of the national guideline was 73 per cent versus 66 per cent in Flint.
Comment: “The median, the average, (are) quite high in comparison with the averages and comparison with Flint,” says Lanphear. “If they were using corrosion control, it might be lower. But lead service lines are really, probably, the major source of lead contamination of water.”
Response: “We don’t feel it’s a fair comparison,” wrote Josh Mickleborough, the city’s director of engineering, in an email response to questions. “Our water supply from Buffalo Pound meets all safety regulations, and there are roughly only about 2,000 city-owned lead service connections in existence … As for private lead connections, we proactively perform random testing each year and inform any property owners of their results.”
Saskatoon’s average for six-hour standing tests in homes with lead lines averaged 31 ppb against Flint’s 21.6 ppb. Ninety-four per cent of Saskatoon samples exceeded the national guideline versus 66 per cent in Flint.
Comment: “I think that what you’re witnessing across Canada, from the data I’ve examined, is exactly what you’d expect: that if you don’t implement corrosion control, you’re going to have some pretty high levels of lead in water,” says Edwards. “And the corrosion control that’s currently being used in these cities is just not adequate by American standards … I don’t think there’s anything arguable or anything surprising about these results.”
Response: “From our perspective, the situation in Flint is completely different than Saskatoon’s,” said Angela Gardiner, general manager of utilities and environment with the city. “Our understanding is that it is an issue with their water supply and when they switched water supplies … We’re very confident that our potential lead levels are well below what is regulated.”
The city has never done the kind of standing water tests that experts agree are needed to determine the true level of contamination. But based on flushed tests in which city staff let the taps run for five minutes before gathering samples, lead levels still reached an average of 7.3 ppb in homes with lead pipes — slightly below the 7.6 ppb found in Flint with a three-minute flush in homes with lead. A greater proportion of the flushed samples also exceeded the national guideline — 36 per cent in Montreal compared to 25 per cent in Flint.
Comment: “These samples from Montreal with a five-minute flush are definitively worse than a three-minute flush from Flint because you flush longer and you still have more lead,” says Edwards. “If it were an American city, that would not have been allowed. It would have to have corrosion control.”
Response: “The case of Montreal and Flint is so different,” said Chantal Morissette, the city’s director of water services. “In Montreal, the water is safe. The water that is coming from the drinking water plant is of excellent quality. The water that is in the pipes is excellent. It’s only when it goes through the lead service lines, and yes, some of the results were as high.”
With files from: Annabelle Caillou, Ainslie Cruickshank, Mike De Souza, Jeremy Glass-Pilon, Thia James, Dan Spector, Katelyn Wilson
Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University
See the full list of Tainted Water series credits here: concordia.ca/watercredits.