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EDITORIAL: Lead lingering in drinking water demands leadership

Steve MacKay has lead water pipes leading to his Robie Street home in Halifax.
Steve MacKay has lead water pipes leading to his Robie Street home in Halifax. Far too many Canadians — and their children — still consume water with lead levels known to be dangerously harmful to their health.- Ryan Taplin

There’s no absolutely “safe" level of lead in drinking water.

That’s according to both the World Health Organization and Health Canada, although the latter has set the acceptable upper limit at a maximum five parts per billion.

The federal guideline on lead in drinking water has been sharply lowered over the years, most recently last March, when it was halved.

Lead’s impact on the human body is frightening. The nervous, digestive, cardiovascular, reproductive and renal systems, along with the brain, can all be extensively damaged, at any age, by lead exposure, which can be cumulative.

Young children and pregnant women are particularly at risk, with links to severe developmental problems, including lowered IQ and stunted growth, and learning and behavioural disabilities.

Real progress has been made in reducing lead exposure in many places across the country. But far too many Canadians — and their children — still consume water with lead levels known to be dangerously harmful to their health.

That’s clear from recent coverage by SaltWire journalist Brett Bundale about ongoing problems with lead in drinking water in the Atlantic region, and stories from a separate, year-long, Canada-wide investigation into the same problem by hundreds of journalists from 10 media organizations and nine universities.

...far too many Canadians — and their children — still consume water with lead levels known to be dangerously harmful to their health.

Both identified one of the biggest obstacles: Canada’s fractured approach to the issue.

Compared to the U.S. and many other developed nations, this country suffers from a shocking lack of common standards, for everything from testing protocols to mandated removal regulations to financial assistance programs for remediation work.

For example, different places test for lead differently. Some jurisdictions flush lines before taking water samples, while others let water stagnate in pipes overnight (which experts say gives more accurate results).

Cost is, understandably, often a major barrier for homeowners. In Atlantic Canada, St. John’s will replace lead service lines to homes for free, Halifax offers rebates of 25 per cent, up to $2,500, for the same work, while Charlottetown and Saint John currently offer no financial help whatsoever.

Other sources of lead in drinking water include solder in plumbing lines and some bathroom fixtures.

Many provinces don’t do routine testing or publicize results, which, given the danger to health, is unacceptable.

We applaud Ontario backbench MP Bob Bratina’s proposed private member’s bill to create a national strategy to deal with lead in drinking water.

More such political leadership — at all levels of government — is obviously needed to tackle this problem.

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