Hazardous Levels of Lead in Canadian Tap Water

Commentary, Municipal Government, Paz Gómez

Canadians have been exposed to a silent health hazard for more than 40 years: high levels of lead in tap water. Although a clear case of municipal mismanagement, Toronto shows the issue can be handled at the local level with minimal federal oversight—given the right incentives. 

More than 120 journalists from nine universities and 10 media outlets, including the Associated Press, conducted a one-year investigation measuring lead exposure in 11 cities across Canada. The results, released in November, were shocking. Out of the 12,000 water tests collected, 39 percent exceeded the national safety standard of five parts per billion (ppb). In Nova Scotia, samples collected by King College journalism students tested as high as 80 ppb.

No lead level is safe, but Virginia Tech’s engineering professor Marc Edwards argues a single glass of water with extreme levels can intoxicate children. This can cause prenatal growth abnormalities, behavioral problems, and reduced cognition. In adults, lead is a risk factor for hypertension, chronic kidney disease, and tremors. 

Canada banned lead pipes for construction four decades ago, so how can she be on the verge of a public-health crisis due to high lead levels in tap water?

The answer is depressingly simple: municipalities have neither replaced lead pipes nor taken effective measures to avoid corrosion from those already installed. Without clear consequences, they have failed to respond.

In Ontario, exceedance rates reached as high as 50 percent. Twenty-five municipalities reported they did not even know how many lead pipes on public and private property were supplying homes. Another 16 municipalities provided estimates totaling more than 180,000 lead pipes, of which 30,000 were in Toronto. 

The next challenge is that records providing their locations are stored among piles of documents, which are not easy to search. The study revealed there is no comprehensive inventory of service lines.

Dan Huggins, water-quality manager for the city of London, and other water officials across Ontario excused themselves with the hollow argument that municipalities cannot afford pipe replacements.

Safe Drinking Water without Centralization

The journalists did a stellar job documenting how government negligence and mismanagement caused this disease, even with the federal ban. However, the investigation inexplicably recommends more of the same to cure it. For instance, it suggests enacting “federally-mandated control methods, lead pipe removal requirements, and lead test protocols.”

In 2009, the federal government released a guideline to control corrosion on drinking-water distribution systems. Further, following the 1987 Federal Water Policy, more than 20 federal departments and agencies have a role in fresh-water management. 

However, provinces and territories are closer to the action and have the natural responsibility for overseeing safe drinking water. Meanwhile, municipalities implement the everyday operations of treatment facilities.

Although 72 percent of Canada’s water and sanitation systems are private, these are small companies that mainly supply recreational facilities and trailer parks. Municipalities own around 2,500 water and sewer utilities in dense urban areas, while private wells feed fresh water to only 15 percent of the Canadian population, mostly in rural areas. 

Toronto Shows Increased Federal Regulation Unnecessary

Toronto stands as a successful example of how to tackle lead exposure at the local level.

Lead levels in Toronto used to be among the highest in the country. In a 2008 study, half of the tests exceeded the lead provincial standard. Then, in 2014, the city started adding orthophosphate, a non-toxic substance to control corrosion, to the water. Just 2 percent of the test results of the latest investigation in Toronto exceeded the lead national limits. 

The city government initially spent $9 million to implement the plan, and then $3 million per year to sustain it. Edwards explains this treatment has actually generated savings by prolonging pipe lifespan. 

Treating water with selenium or other appropriate substances is an affordable and effective solution to the glaring problem. It is particularly useful when municipalities cannot afford pipe replacement right away or do not even know where to start. According to Health Canada, “drinking-water treatment devices are also an effective option.”

Well owners are an example of how the private sector can also effectively deal with lead contamination. A study conducted by researchers from the University of Calgary on the perception of drinking-water quality from private wells in Alberta shows there is reason for optimism. It revealed most of the interviewed well owners reported using a satisfactory mitigation strategy and supported accurate management practices such as testing, treatment, and well maintenance. 

However, even conscientious homeowners can only do so much. They can replace their own pipes but still get lead-contaminated water because the service line which feeds their homes has lead. The best approach to lead-exposure reduction “is to remove the full lead service line,” Health Canada indicates. 

Many of the homeowners interviewed by the journalists and students who conducted the investigation were surprised and upset with the recent test results. Andrew Keddie, a retired professor who replaced his home pipes years ago, assumed his water was clean. Other homeowners said they would stop drinking tap water and purchase bottled water instead. 

While replacing the lead service line remains the best solution, its cost have been the touted roadblock. Culpable municipalities need to get punished for bad behavior, and the federal government can facilitate this by reviewing its 33-year-old policy. 

Existing legislation contemplates federal controls and reporting from local governments, but compliance is low. Sanford Berg, a professor of economics at the University of Florida, explains in a report for the United Nations that national water agencies rarely command the obedience of local officials, given the latter’s short-term political focus.

To keep municipalities water officials accountable, the World Bank recommends a mix of incentives and sanctions. In a 2008 report, “Key Topics in Public Water Utility Reform,” it noted, “effective regulation requires the ability to reward good performance and punish poor performance.” 

A successful example is Uganda, where the national water corporation included bonuses of up to 50 percent of salaries if previously established targets were met. Aside from achieving the objectives, the result was higher performance and greater staff participation.

Lead in Canada’s tap water has led the nation to a public-health crisis, and the municipalities can follow the lead of Toronto and implement, at minimal cost, urgent actions to minimize exposure. Refining the investigation’s advice, the federal government should streamline transparency procedures and design an effective reward system for water management. 

Banning old pipes and expecting local governments to fix existing ones was problematic from day one. Unrealistic plans from Ottawa are not new, but there is no excuse for inaction now the extent of the problem is there for all to see.

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Paz Gómez is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.