Water quality tests show Toronto homes’ water full of lead
Thirteen per cent of household water tests conducted in Toronto over the past six years showed unsafe levels of lead, according to city data obtained by the Torstar News Service.
The data, drawn from the 15,000 samples, was collected by Torontonians from their water taps and submitted to the city for analysis between 2008 and 2014.
This first ever detailed analysis of the test results by neighbourhood places the vast majority of failures in aging residential areas of the city where infrastructure is old and real estate values are typically high.
The largest concentration of dangerously high lead levels are in High Park, the Lawrence Park neighbourhood centred on Lawrence Ave. and Yonge St., the downtown south Annex and sections of East York.
“We’ve sat on our hands since 2008, when we knew the health impacts of lead in water,” says Councillor Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches-East York), whose ward has a failure rate of 16 per cent in more than 1,000 tests.
“That’s unacceptable. I think the city has to be more accountable and take greater responsibility for replacement of all the pipes that contain lead. It’s a public health issue and we need to ensure accountability on council for providing that.”
An estimated 40,000 houses in Toronto still have lead pipe water service from the city. But even that is a guess, say city officials.
While failed tests prompted the city to replace lead pipes when the program began in 2008, it has since stepped back from that and now relies on homeowners to initiate pipe replacement by committing to upgrade the pipes on their property before the city does its portion of the water line.
A lack of public awareness around the issue of lead in drinking water has dramatically slowed that replacement process, Torstar’s investigation has found. There were more than 4,500 water tests by homeowners in 2008 — a figure that has steadily dropped to fewer than 800 last year.
The tests results, obtained under freedom of information, show maximum acceptable lead concentrations — 10 parts per billion — were exceeded, sometimes dramatically, more than 2,000 times.
“Water is one of the most critical services the city provides,” said Councillor Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West), whose constituents had the second highest failure rate in the city: more than 18 per cent. “It’s such a critical part of people’s health and we want to make sure we’re reducing exposure to lead. You’ve raised this for me. I want to press to get this addressed across the city.”
Lead can affect the human brain and nervous system and is most dangerous for fetuses, infants and children under 6. City health officials warn that “infants who are fed formula made with tap water from lead service pipes could be getting the highest amount of lead from drinking water because this is their main source of food.”
Symptoms for a young child with elevated lead exposure include shortened attention span, reduced IQ, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and behavioural problems. Adult symptoms include hypertension and kidney failure.
The city advises residents with dangerously high lead test results to install a water filter, breastfeed any babies in the house, flush pipes for at least one minute and use cold water for cooking and drinking.
Although lead levels beneath 10 parts per billion are considered safe by Health Canada, many medical researchers say there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.
“The (10 parts per billion threshold) is obsolete,” says Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a health sciences professor who specializes in lead exposure in children at Simon Fraser University. “We’ve got science that is conclusive, definitive and evaluated by independent advisory boards but policy hasn’t kept up with that.”
Lanphear said Toronto’s 13-per-cent failure rate is a serious concern. “That’s excessive and unacceptable from a public health perspective.”
Kathleen Cooper, senior researcher and lead expert with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, says there is “incredibly solid evidence to say there is no safe level (of lead).”
The outcome of the city’s tests “underscores the need for a full pipelines replacement,” she said.
Lead in tap water comes from one of two sources: aging pipes on city property or aging service pipes on homeowner’s side of the property line.
Removing the pipes is proving costly, complicated and slow. In 2007, the city approved $236 million to accelerate the replacement of city-owned lead pipes connected to an estimated 65,000 houses. The work was to be completed by 2016.
That isn’t going to happen. It will likely be 20 to 30 more years before all lead pipes are unearthed from city-owned property, thanks to a combination of costs, new science and homeowners unwilling to upgrade their side of the problem at a typical cost of about $3,000.
As city workers began tearing up streets to replace lead pipes, they discovered an unintended result: so-called “partial replacements,” in which lead piping remained on the homeowner’s side of the property line, leading to increased lead exposure.
“As you are disturbing these lines by just doing the city side, you’d see a spike (in lead levels) for a few months,” said Lou Di Gironimo, general manager of Toronto Water. “We were changing out city-owned portions (of lead pipe) at a faster rate than we were seeing private owners changing out theirs.”
In response, the city dramatically slowed its replacement pace in 2011 to less than half — to 5,000 households a year from 11,000. That slowdown was, in part, an attempt to ensure complete lead replacements with the co-operation of homeowners.
Homeowners who commit to changing their side may now apply to the city for an upgrade on the other side.
But those requests have slowed to a drip. In the past two years, replacements have fallen below the city’s already modest annual target of 5,000 homes: 3,500 in 2012 and 3,800 last year.
“It’s hard to predict the pace now because a lot of it is driven by the homeowner themselves,” said Di Gironimo.
A 2011 city report estimated 70 per cent of property owners whose services were upgraded on the city’s side didn’t upgrade their portion of lead pipes.
The same year, a poll of Torontonians found the most common reasons for not upgrading lead pipes included the cost and a lack of awareness about the health impacts of lead, said Dr. Howard Shapiro, Toronto’s associate medical officer of health.
“Most people don’t think about it or even know that they have a lead pipe,” he said. “And some people don’t really care … We think it’s an issue. But it’s hard to get people interested. I’m a bit perplexed.”
The issue appears to be nowhere on the radar of home buyers either, said broker Dianne Usher, president of the Toronto Real Estate Board.
While realtors are obliged to disclose to a prospective homebuyer any shortcomings that might affect their decision to purchase, lead levels in tap water is an issue that is rarely — if ever — raised, she said.
“I oversee thousands of transactions a year and I’ve never seen anything in an agreement of purchase and sale to specifically address lead in water. It’s just not played up.”
For many homeowners, the bill for replacing their side of the pipes is too steep without the kind of loan and subsidy programs that other cities provide, said Councillor Davis.
“People have come to me and said, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t afford it,’ ” she said. “We weren’t allowing (homeowners) sufficient notice or giving them sufficient information about the health risks or providing them with any financial support for replacing the private portion at the same time. We’ve got to find ways to help people to do this, and so far we’ve been unwilling.”
Mark Haan and his family live in an East York home with lead pipes that they want removed.
But Haan, father of a 10-year-old, says he can’t afford it working part-time for a not-for-profit.
He said Toronto Water will start charging an extra $80 a month, beginning in June, because he has refused to allow the agency to install a new water meter for fear of disturbing the pipes and increasing the level of lead flowing into the taps.
“The only reason we’re not changing the pipes is the cost. Obviously, we’d love to have it out.”
Councillor Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence), a mayoral candidate whose riding had an 18-per-cent failure rate on nearly 1,000 tests, said financial incentives for homeowners who want to replace their lead pipes is worth consideration.
“If that’s the reason people aren’t replacing the pipes, then I think we have an obligation to look at that,” she said. “People expect that when they turn on their taps, the water is safe to drink. It’s a reasonable expectation and one we need to make sure we deliver on.”
Other Canadian cities offer incentives or loans to lead-laden homeowners to replace their pipes. Saskatoon has a cost-share program with the homeowner’s portion added to the property tax bill. Hamilton and London offer loans with repayment over 10 years. In Brantford, homeowners apply for a $1,000 grant.
In Toronto, the focus has been on a new technology to decrease corrosion in pipes so as to lower lead levels, said Di Gironimo.
But the problem is ultimately only solved with replacement of all lead pipes, he said. “I still support full lead replacement.”
Houses built before the mid-1950s are most likely to have lead pipes. Residents of apartment building with more than six units are unaffected because lead is too soft to handle the higher pressure required and was not used.
Getting the lead out
The test results obtained by Torstar are from water samples drawn from taps and collected into city-issued containers available free at Toronto Public Health offices. The test kits advise residents to flush pipes for five minutes before collecting the sample.
Step 1: If you live in a home built before the mid-1950s or are concerned about lead in your water, the city recommends having a free test done on your tap water.
Call 311 to register for the test, then pick up a test kit from one of six Toronto Public Health offices in the city (see map).
Step 2: Following the instructions, collect a water sample from your home tap and return it to the Toronto Public Health office for analysis. Staff from Toronto Water will provide the results by phone within a few weeks.
Step 3: If the result exceeds 10 parts per billion, your lead level exceeds the Ontario Drinking Water Quality Standard. The city recommends replacing your lead service pipes on both sides of the property line, especially if there is a child under the age of 6 or a pregnant woman in the house. In the meantime, the city recommends installing a water filter certified by the National Sanitation Foundation (nsf.org).
Step 4: Hire a private contractor to replace your side of the water service (typically costing about $3,000) and submit an application to have the city-owned portion of your water service replaced within eight to 10 weeks. It is essential that pipes on both sides of your property line are replaced. You can also consult the city’s contractor about having both sides of the pipes replaced at the same time. Several independent quotes for the job are recommended.
Other tips for those with high lead levels:
- Breastfeed babies instead of using tap water.
- Flush your water every morning and afternoon until it runs cold.
- Use cold water for cooking and drinking.