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GOVERNMENT OF CANADA’S NEW LEAD GUIDELINES – LITTLE THINGS MATTER
By Suzanne Forcese
According to the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality, the maximum acceptable concentration for total lead in drinking water is 0.005 mg/L (5µg/L), based on a sample of water taken at the tap and using the appropriate protocol for the type of building being sampled. The document states, “As current science cannot identify a level under which lead is no longer associated with adverse health effects, lead concentrations in drinking water should be kept as low as reasonably achievable.”
WaterToday looked into that statement in more detail in a conversation with Bruce Lanphear, MD, MPH, Clinician Scientist at the Child & Family Research Institute, BC Children’s Hospital, and Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. We specifically wanted to know the impact of lead in drinking water on infants and young children. Referring to recent studies, Dr. Lanphear told WT, “Children who drank tap water with more than 5 ppb (parts per billion) of lead had a 20% increase in the amount of lead circulating in their blood. On average, a 10 ppb increase in the amount of lead circulating in a child’s blood results in a 1 to 1.5 drop in IQ scores. Infants who are formula fed with tap water are at a heightened risk of exposure.”
Dr. Lanphear is leading an outreach video production with Bob Lanphear (littlethingsmatter.ca) to enhance public understanding of how our health is inextricably linked with the environment. “We won’t solve our health problems with technology alone; we need social reform and regulations to build healthy cities and curb pollutants and hazardous consumer products. We have been studying the impact of toxins on children for 30 years and have reached the inescapable conclusion that little things matter,” Dr. Lanphear states.
“Toxins can have a lifelong impact on children. Extremely low levels of toxins can impact brain development.”
Studies have shown that lead is detected in the blood of all children regardless of race, income, or where they live. Canada’s Guidelines are stating a limit of 5 parts per billion as acceptable. “One part per billion is deceptively very small,” Dr. Lanphear continues. “It is only about the equivalent of 2 T. of sugar in an Olympic sized swimming pool. But toxins can be biologically active even at very low levels.”
“In the l960’s, hundreds of children died from lead poisoning every year. Since then much lower levels of exposure have been shown in learning deficits and brain disorders like ADHD. In fact WHO (World Health Organization) and other agencies agree there is no safe level of lead exposure for children.”
As blood levels of lead increase from zero to 100 ppb, IQ scores drop by 6 points. An increase to 200 ppb results in an IQ drop of 2 more points and another increase to 300 ppb results in a drop of another IQ point. “The impact on the developing brain is permanent. Children who are more regularly exposed to toxins won’t reach the same peak cognitive ability as those with lower exposures.”
“The way we regulate toxins which assumes there is a safe level fails to protect children. Little shifts in IQ scores have a big impact on whether children are challenged or gifted.”
The impact of exposure to a toxin like lead, which causes a 5% drop in IQ means there is a 57% increase in the number of children who are challenged.
Referring to an investigation which measured exposure to lead in 11 Canadian cities’ drinking water that exceeded the Guidelines, Dr. Lanphear said, “I am surprised at the extent of the problem.”
In Canada, each province sets water safety rules. The main source of lead in drinking water is antiquated pipes.
“I am optimistic it will change though. We now have a standard. The lower Guidelines are promising. Now it’s a matter of filling in the cracks,” Dr. Lanphear concluded.
Mayor Valerie Plante of Montreal is working on those cracks. “By upgrading its action plan for the replacement of lead water service lines, the city is aligning its actions with the most recent scientific findings and Health Canada recommendations, in order to reduce from 10 to 5 micrograms per liter the maximum concentration of lead in drinking water,” Mayor Plante told WT in an emailed statement. “The city will have replaced all lead service lines by 2030, this means some 48,000 will be replaced.”
The City of Montreal carries out testing in accordance with the Regulation respecting the quality of drinking water. “The average results of those tests were 7µ/L for the period 2009 to 2018. These results are forwarded annually to the Environment Ministry and excessive concentrations are reported to the Regional Health Agency and the residents concerned have been notified,” Mayor Plante continues. The City uses a quick screening protocol called the Palintest that was implemented in 2010 with the NSERC Industrial Chair on Drinking Water. “A city representative carries out tests in every building that is potentially connected through lead lines.”
The city will analyze the tap water of approximately 100,000 buildings by 2022, prioritizing those housing family daycares, early childhood education centres, single family homes, duplexes or triplexes.
Regarding concerns about children in daycares and schools Mayor Plante also told WT in the email exchange, “The city encourages the managers of those facilities to test water samples and to establish an action plan in order to eliminate lead from their piping, particularly from water fountains.”
Health Canada states: “Water from drinking fountains may have higher levels of lead than water from nearby taps because they contain more piping, soldered joints and fittings from which lead may leach. In addition the water usually sits in the fountains for longer periods of time.”
In the city’s revised action plan, Montreal commits to prioritizing the replacement of lead water service pipes in family-run daycares and early childhood education centres. “Chances are very slim that schools are connected through lead service lines due to the size of those buildings; however, it is possible to find lead in plumbing and accessories inside the building. These aspects are under schoolboard jurisdiction.”
WaterToday checked in with the City of Winnipeg to discover how that city was dealing with the new Health Canada Guidelines. Although Mayor Brian Bowman was unable to schedule an interview with us, his spokesperson, Adam Campbell told us, “Most Winnipeggers are not impacted by the new guidelines for lead in drinking water, as the City’s source water at Shoal Lake has no detectable lead. However, residents who have lead pipes or lead in other parts of their plumbing may have increased levels of lead in their water if the water sits in the pipes.” In addition, Campbell told us. “In 2019, in response to new lead guidelines from the Government of Canada, the City conducted over 250 residential tests at no cost to property owners. Results from these tests will be published online before the end of the year.”
“We have been adding orthophosphate, a food-grade phosphoric acid, to Winnipeg’s drinking water during the treatment process since 2000. It forms a protective coating inside water pipes which helps reduce corrosion that can add lead to the water supply. Winnipeg is one of the very few cities to have such a program,” Campbell added.
“Food-grade phosphoric acid is a clear, odorless liquid found in many popular food products, such as soft drinks.” (Winnipeg Water and Waste Department) “Much of our water supply ends up as wastewater at the three sewage treatment plants. Here it is treated and released to the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.”
Incidentally, according to the “Lead and Winnipeg’s Water” document, the released water makes its way to Lake Winnipeg. The report states, “The phosphorus levels are about 14% higher at the North End plant” since the start of the Orthophosphate Program. (Phosphorus is the main contributor to algal blooms.)
While Winnipeg has no immediate plans to replace all the water pipes, “whenever there is a water main break we replace the pipe with one that is non-lead.”
Both the City of Montreal and the City of Winnipeg have sent information to property owners that inform on ways to reduce tap water lead exposure that include the following points:
As Dr. Bruce Lanphear says, “Little things matter.”
- Flush your plumbing system before consuming water that has been standing in pipes for more than 6 hours
- After flushing, fill containers with water and keep them refrigerated for drinking
- Use cold water for cooking
- Consider using home water treatment devices that have proper certification to reduce or remove lead (water filters with the health Canada recommended certification label ANS/NSF Standard no. 53)
- Consider replacing the lead water pipe that goes from your home to the shut-off valve
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