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18th November 2019
...continued from Part 1

“[Lead] has been linked with not only IQ deficits in children, but spontaneous abortion and miscarriage in women, pre-term birth in women, hypertension in adults, premature deaths from cardiovascular disease in adults,” Lanphear said in an interview.

“It’s clearly a major public health problem, even if it’s an insidious one.”

There are also economic impacts. A 2013 Health Canada risk management strategy predicted an economic benefit of more than $9 billion a year “if the exposure of Canadian children to lead could be eliminated.” It factored the number of children exposed each year and the impact on intellectual development and lifetime earnings.

Lanphear, who is also a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University, said that Canada could reduce cases of illnesses such as hypertension and coronary heart disease if it focused on reducing lead exposure, which is a major risk factor. He noted that cases of both illnesses dropped dramatically in recent decades in North America after companies stopped using lead in both gasoline and paint.

But he said more could be done to reduce the amount of money that people are still spending on medication to treat these illnesses.

“If you took a poll of Canadians and you gave them an option, would you rather never have hypertension and coronary heart disease, or would you rather rely on an expensive drug to solve the problem once you already have it?” he asked.

“My guess is the majority of Canadians would rather never have had it in the first place. Not only is it expensive, there’s all these side-effects.”

Yet, lead in drinking water persists as a public health crisis in Canada, enabled by a patchwork of policies and few mandated protocols governing testing.

The federal government can provide infrastructure funding and Health Canada can set national guidelines, but they are not enforcing these guidelines. The management, treatment and distribution of drinking water fall to the provinces, while the day-to-day, hands-on functions of water systems fall to the municipalities.

That lack of federal oversight is in stark contrast to the United States, where the Environmental Protection Agency imposes legal standards for testing and public disclosure, including an annual Consumer Confidence Report provided by water utilities to homeowners that details lead test results.

In Canada, there are no federally mandated control methods, lead-pipe removal requirements or lead test protocols. Health Canada recommends lead testing at residential taps, but B.C. and Alberta don’t require municipalities to do so. During consultations with Health Canada about the new guideline, many provinces lamented the high cost of testing at residential taps and in schools. Manitoba said testing would be a “significant burden” and Yukon noted that “it is not possible to quantify any potential impact... due to a lack of exposure data.”

Montreal previously set a goal of removing tens of thousands of lead pipes in the city by 2026, but announced in October that it was pushing that target back to 2030.

In Ontario, the 919 lead exceedances of the federal guideline over the past two years reflect the hundreds of thousands of lead lines feeding homes and businesses across the province.

Water officials across Ontario agree on the need to get the lead out. But they repeatedly told reporters that municipalities are many years — or decades — away from being able to pay for it.

Even if municipalities did have the means to aggressively remove lead lines, most wouldn’t even know where to start digging. There is no provincial or federal inventory of lead lines.

Reporters surveyed 50 Ontario municipalities and half reported they could not provide an estimate of how many lead pipes — on public and private property — are feeding homes. In other cases, water officials offered broad guesses.

“Very difficult to estimate — perhaps 10,000 [lead lines on private property],” wrote London water quality manager Dan Huggins. Port Colborne environmental compliance supervisor Darlene Suddard wrote: “We are not required to know [the number of remaining lead pipes].”

Ryan Peterson, chief operator of the Kenora Water Treatment plant, wrote: “We are aware of a few private lead services but it is possible that there are more we are not aware of.”

Sixteen municipalities provided estimates totalling more than 180,000 lead lines delivering water to homes and buildings. An estimated 30,000 of these lead lines are in Toronto, but the records providing their locations are among tens of thousands of paper documents that cannot be easily searched, officials said.

“I think that one of the takeaways from this investigation is that here we are relying on journalists to do public health work,” Lanphear, from SFU, said.

“And isn’t this unusual. We see the same thing in the States. Is it because there’s not enough resources? Well, if that’s the case, we need to find ways to increase the funding so that public health officers or environmental health officers can do their job.”