Get the lead out
Little has been done to remove the potent neurotoxin from city’s water supply
Sixteen months ago, Toronto discovered a cancer under its streets.
Old lead pipes, installed in the 1950s and earlier, were leaching the metal, a potent neurotoxin into tap water — posing a serious health risk to pregnant women and children in particular.
Toronto responded to the provincial order to test drinking water in this city by warning residents living in older homes to flush their taps for at least five minutes before drinking from them, to expedite a lead pipe replacement program and distribute water filters to low-income families.
An investigation by the Sunday Sun has revealed that not only has little progress been made to deal with the lead, tests show the problem has gotten worse.
– Of 8,113 water samples Toronto Central Lab has received from residents for lead testing since June 2007, the average amount of lead in those samples rose from 4.4 parts per billion (ug/L) in 2007 to 5.1 this year.
– One in eight Toronto homeowners — nearly 1,000 — who submitted tap water to the city over that time had a lead content in their drinking water that exceeded the provincial standard of 10 ug/L.
– The city has only replaced 5,500 of the 65,000 old water “supply” main connections made of lead or that contain lead that were installed underground prior to 1955.
– Not a single water filter has been passed out to low-income families.
In May 2007, Toronto was one of 36 communities across the province ordered to test local tap water for lead contamination after higher-than-acceptable levels were discovered in London, Ont.
Half of those municipalities found lead levels above provincial standards and in this city, even though just a relative handful of tests were conducted, two of 20 initial tests exceeded standards.
Subsequently, 12 of 160 tests exceeded standards.
The city’s response was to “aggressively” replace the 65,000 underground lead service connections.
According to Lou Di Gironimo, Toronto Water’s general manager, the city is moving “as quickly as possible” to dig up and replace those toxic connections between the city’s water mains and people’s property lines. The plan, which costs about $17 million annually and requires a full-time engineer to coordinate the program, will take nine years.
“I’d say the city acted very, very quickly on dealing with the problem,” he said. “We put in place a plan to deal with (lead pipe) replacements within nine years. From my perspective, that is extremely quick.
“We’re going as quickly as we can, we can’t tear up every street in the downtown.”
Di Gironimo added the city also prioritizes lead pipe replacements for people whose tests show their water is above the provincial maximum.
From when test results are known, he said, there is a six- to eight-week turnaround.
However, Frank Zechner, the executive director of the Ontario Sewer and Watermain Construction Association, said he believes the city will take longer than nine years to replace its lead service connections.
But even its stated timeline, he charged, is far too slow. Similar programs in the U.S. have mandated timelines to replace lead pipes tied to test results.
“Replacing 5,500 out of 65,000 in just over a year is still a pretty lax pace,” Zechner said.
That work also does nothing to address lead pipes and connections that run on an individual’s property.
There are, in fact, untold thousands of homes in this city with lead pipes running from the basement to the street but unlike U.S. jurisdictions, Toronto has no proactive program to notify homeowners the pipes on their property may be made from lead.
That means that even if the city replaces lead mains in an old neighbourhood, the pipes going to the houses and apartments will still be lead and the water running to those homes may be contaminated with lead.
Replacing household supply lines is the responsibility of the homeowner and could cost thousands of dollars.
Toronto has also decided not to add sodium hydroxide, or lye, to its drinking water to alter the pH levels, which can slow down the rate of lead corrosion.
Di Gironimo said they monitor the city’s water chemistry, but aren’t altering it for alkalinity to date.
“That’s one thing you can do, the other thing you can do is just take the lead pipe out of the ground, and that’s the approach we’ve taken,” Di Gironimo said.
The City of London, where the issue of excessive lead in drinking water was first discovered in May 2007, is doing both.
So far, t ve also begun adding sodium hydroxide to their water to curb it’s corrosion of lead.
And according to Jim Merritt, chairman of the Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Council, water chemistry levels are perhaps more important than digging up the lead connections.
“Simply thinking that you can go out and change lead service lines and walk away and say you’ve solved the problem isn’t the right approach,” he said. “You should only dig up the lead line pipes and everything else after you’ve done the other good work and find out where the persistent problems are.”
Altering the water’s chemistry, something the city isn’t doing but Merritt said is a good approach, would be mandated by the province if 10% or more of Torontonians drinking water was in excess of 10 ug/L.
While city tests (of unregulated samples collected by homeowners) show 10 to 12% of residents in older homes have excessive lead levels, the province’s first round of twice-annual testing (of regulated samples collected by ministry of environment employees) for 2008 showed only 4% were above the provincial maximum.
“Clearly it indicates to me they’re doing well,” said Paul Nieweglowski, Ontario’s deputy chief drinking water inspector.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency mandates that any water system serving more than 50,000 people balance the water’s chemistry to reduce its corrosiveness to lead and other heavy metals.
If excessive levels (above the U.S. standard of 15 ug/L) are still found, then 7% of that system’s lead service lines must be replaced annually, or until there are no excessive lead test results in two consecutive six-month periods.
The new provincial regulations, introduced in 2007 to deal with the province-wide problem of old lead water pipes, have no such teeth, allowing municipalities to use sodium hydroxide and other “corrective” measures indefinitely.
Toronto, however, is replacing its share of lead connections voluntarily, accelerating the process for homeowners whose lead levels are too high.
But even for those homeowners whose water contains an allowable limit of lead, they may wait up to nine years for their pipes to be lead free.
Lead is a toxin that is especially harmful to children under the age of six, who absorb lead more easily than adults and, because their brains are still developing, can suffer a loss in intelligence and a higher risk of learning disabilities. Some experts suggest there is no “safe” amount of lead a person can drink.
As for the increase in lead levels from last year, Di Gironimo suggested it was “insignificant.”
“When you’re looking at micrograms, it’s very, very small quantities. From an analytical standpoint, that variance is not that significant.
“It’s 0.7 of a microgram, it’s very insignificant,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s simple. We know we have a lead problem, because we have lead services out there, and that’s the primary cause, so let’s get on and change that.”
Until the lead service pipes are removed, Di Gironimo added, there will continue to be lead in the city’s drinking water.
The lead levels found in the samples brought in to the city, even if they are rising, are still well within the provincial limit, he said.
But Merritt said municipalities shouldn’t necessarily concern themselves with whether the lead level in the water is below the provincial standard, but should pay more attention to the trends.
“They shouldn’t get to fixed on the standard (of 10 ug/L). The standard is there and it’s an important thing to have, but the other thing they need to be cognizant of is their trends,” he said. “If you’re trending in the wrong direction, then that should be a sign that you need to be taking action at that point, not waiting until you exceed the standard.
“If your trends are indicating that these levels are increasing, then even though you’re below the standard that should tell you that there’s something going on and you need to reexamine why those trends are going up, even if you’re well below the standard,” he added.
“That, to me, is good due diligence practice.”
“Simply thinking that you can go out and change lead service lines and walk away and say you’ve solved the problem isn’t the right approach,” he said.
Following the results of the province-wide testing 16 months ago, the province ordered all school boards and daycares to beef up their testing regimes and initiate daily “flushing” of the water pipes to get rid of stagnant water that could have accumulated more lead.
Earlier this fall, the Toronto District School Board, which still flushes the water from all their schools’ lines each morning, said none of their properties showed unsafe levels of lead.
Residents of older homes built before 1952 are also encouraged to flush their system each morning by running the tap for five minutes after each six-hour period of stagnation.
But flushing water can be costly, especially with city water rates rising 9% this year and the next three at least, and even after flushing, the amount of lead in the water can still be too high for pregnant women and children under the age of seven.
The Sun has learned, though, that no one has taken advantage of the city’s Water Filter Fund, which with provincial money, gives $100 to low-income families for a water filter.
The program is for families who make less than $20,000 annually, have excess levels of lead in their water, and have a child under six or a pregnant woman.
According to Brenda Nesbitt with the city’s social services department that administers the province’s program, one reason it might not be being used is because the criteria is so strict.
Peter Tabuns, the environment critic for the NDP, said the fact that no one has taken up the Ministry of Environment’s offer for the Water Filter Fund proves it has “failed.”
“If the water filter program has had no one pick up on it whatsoever, then there are clearly mothers and children out there that are at risk,” he said. “The province should be moving quickly to reach those parents and children. The criteria has to change … because kids are drinking lead in their water and they shouldn’t be.”
Environment Minister John Gerretsen was contacted but was not available for comment.
USE COLD WATER, AND OTHER WAYS TO TACKLE TOXINS FROM YOUR TAP
– Toronto residents can call 416-392-2894 to have the city test tap water at no cost.
– People concerned about lead should flush their pipes each morning by letting the water run for five minutes or by flushing the toilet and washing their hands.
– Those with concerns about lead should also use cold water for drinking, cooking or preparing baby formula. Hot water dissolves more lead from plumbing.
– Pipes that deliver water from the city’s main distribution lines to homes built before 1955 often contained lead.
– Lead in faucets, fixtures and solder used to connect copper pipes prior to the late 1980s can also contribute to lead problems.
– Toronto has about 500,000 pipes that run from main distribution lines to residential properties. Of that total, 55,000 still contain lead.
-The city is responsible for the portion of the pipe that runs from the main water distribution line to the boundary of someone’s property. A homeowner is responsible for the section from the property line to a house.
– It typically costs a homeowner from $1,000 to $2,500 to replace their section of a lead water delivery pipe.
— Source: City of Toronto