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Water Today Title October 25, 2021

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Update 2019/10/28

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By Suzanne Forcese

In March 2019, Health Canada updated its guideline for lead in drinking water by lowering the standard of maximum acceptable lead concentration in water from 10 micrograms per liter (µg/L) to 5µ/L. The decision was based on the latest science according to the government body which worked with the provinces and territories. While lead levels across the country have dropped over the past 30 years, there still remains a lead legacy in those neighborhoods with pipes and plumbing dating back to the 1950s and earlier. Lead can leach into the drinking water and cause very serious irreversible health issues especially to sensitive individuals and children. According to the World Health Organization, “Lead is a cumulative general poison, with infants, children up to 6 years of age, the fetus and pregnant women being the most susceptible to adverse health effects.”

On October 23, 2019, Québec announced a regulatory amendment as soon as possible, becoming the first province to comply with the new Health Canada standard. In addition, sampling methods for lead in drinking water will be reviewed to fully comply with Health Canada’s recommendations. The announcement comes a week after several media outlets reported an investigative team of Concordia University journalism students’ independent samplings and surveys of residential water. Test result discrepancies were found in their investigation compared to the city records, raising concerns about unacceptable lead levels in daycare facilities and elementary schools. WaterToday reached out to Québec’s Minister of Health and Social Services for an interview. Monsieur Carmant preferred to answer in an email exchange.

In the statement, Carmant told WT, “We are the first province to comply with the proposed standard of .05 milligrams/litre. Lead concentrations in drinking water distributed in Québec are generally very low. Québec’s drinking water is very good quality. Tap water has always been and remains the favorite drink to hydrate.” The exposure to lead in the population has generally decreased considerably in the last decades, mainly due to changes in practices especially in the limitation of lead in paints, essences, and canned goods for example, Carmant also indicated.

As far as the accuracy and reliability (especially in daycares and schools) regarding Québec’s records of lead levels in tests performed by the province, WT looked into an online document, published by the Institut National de Santé Publique, in February 2019. The 126 page report stated: “Due to the scarcity of Québec data, the analysis was mainly based on levels of water contamination in other Canadian provinces. It is therefore not accepted that these data are representative of Québec.” The report goes on to state, “The presence of lead in drinking water in Québec daycare and schools seems to be infrequent and rather intermittent. However, data are limited and should be interpreted with caution.” Although theoretical, the report cautions that “For children attending this small number of institutions the increase in their blood lead level could result in an average loss of 1-3 IQ points and this loss could be as high as 7 points in the case of children with more frequent or larger exposure in the most sensitive children including infants.” The report concludes with an advisory to authorities “to learn more about contamination levels in schools and daycares and monitor the quality of water and develop tools so that professionals in public health departments can adequately advise the parties concerned.”

“In Québec,” Carmant’s emailed response stated, “several standards are in place to guarantee water of excellent quality. Applying these standards helps to control contaminants that may pose a health risk. Lead concentrations in drinking water in Québec are generally very low. The presence of lead in drinking water has been monitored for several years. The government is continuing its efforts to better document lead exposure and protect the health of the vulnerable population.”

If Québec water is the “favorite drink” because of its excellent quality, then it would follow that lead contamination in drinking water comes from another source. “It is the equipment used to transport the water to the consumers, especially the service entrances (pipe connecting the building to the network pipes) which are the main source of exposure to lead via drinking water,” Carmant’s email continues. “Lead can then slowly dissolve in water, especially when the water is aggressive and warmer as in summer.”

Lead service entrances were installed in single-family homes and buildings with fewer than 8 dwellings, particularly during the years 1940-1955, and even until the 1970s.This practice was prohibited by the Plumbing Code in 1980. Welds in the internal plumbing of buildings can also be a source of lead in water. In 1989, the plumbing Code prohibited the use of welds containing more than 0.2% lead.

The government has asked municipalities across Québec to develop an action plan to reduce the presence of lead in drinking water. Health Canada’s recommendations for an action plan states, each community will:
  • Identify the areas of the municipality whose homes are likely to have lead service entrance
  • Determine a timetable for identifying those sectors
  • Evaluate the time needed to replace all PSE’s in its territory
  • Evaluate the cost of the process
  • Determine a prioritization of the work

The City of Montreal’s website indicates that “Montreal aims to eliminate all lead service lines on its territory by 2030.”

Residents can follow an easy guide (provided by the City of Montreal) to check if their dwelling has lead pipes:

    1. Lead is grey
    2. Lead does not echo if you strike it
    3. Lead leaves metallic marks where you scratch it
    4. Lead does not attract a magnet
If in doubt, however contact a licenced plumber. The reality is a plumber will be needed “to replace the private portion of your building’s service line if it is made of lead, so as to help streamline the city’s replacement work.” The cost of doing so, whether homeowners pay up front or wait for the City to charge them could be around $5000.

WaterToday contacted Andree LaForest, Ministre des Affaires Municipales et de l’Habitation, Assemblée Nationale du Québec, who told us financial aid is available. “Municipalities wishing to standardize and upgrade their water pipes system, can use the amounts available through the Ministry’s programs. These programs are the FIMEAU, the PRIMEAU, and the TECQ.”

Keeping in mind that the World Health Organization states that acute long-term exposure to lead can cause renal disease, anaemia, interference with calcium metabolism, neurological and behavioral problems, among other conditions, accumulation of lead in the body is extremely dangerous.

The City of Montreal provides an online guide which states: Reduce your tap water lead exposure and bring your overall risk to a minimum by:
  • Using a water filter pitcher, a tap filter, or a pipe filter beneath your sink (must be NSF-certified for lead reduction in accordance with NSF/ANSI 53 lead content compliance standards)
  • Let your tap water run for a few minutes after it becomes cool. Always use cold water to cook. Clean your tap aerator strainer regularly. Boiling water does not eliminate lead.

As always where drinking water is concerned, it is best to err on the side of caution.


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