Do you feel mis-LEAD by your water?

Facts about lead in tap waterPoster showing cartoon water pipes with the words do you feel mislead by your water?

Concern

There might be lead in tap water, exposing consumers to serious health risks.

Where does the concern about lead in tap water come from?

Recent major incidents have drawn attention to the presence of lead in drinking water. For example, in 2016, an Edmonton woman suffered health effects from elevated lead in drinking water coming from the tap of her 70-year-old home. In 2014 in Flint, Michigan the switch to a corrosive water source caused widespread leaching of lead into the drinking water. 

The issue of lead in Alberta drinking water arises from the use of lead prior to the 1960s in service connections from water mains to individual houses and housing complexes with up to eight units. When water flows through pipes that contain lead, this heavy metal can dissolve, or leach, into the water.

The presence of lead in drinking water is a concern because lead is a neurotoxin, meaning it can affect brain development in humans, especially fetuses, infants and young children. Lead can also negatively affect cardiovascular, kidney, and reproductive systems even at very low concentrations. Since it has no taste, colour, or odour, it is possible for individuals to unknowingly consume lead in drinking water. This, combined with lack of information on the building materials used in a home may result in concerns. 

What is the science behind lead leaching into tap water?

Lead dissolves from pipe materials, including joints and solder, due a chemical reaction between the water flowing through the pipes and the pipe itself. Once water leaves a treatment plant it may encounter lead in: 

  • Older distribution mains and utility-owned or private service lines, and
  • Service connections from pipe jointing compounds, soldered joints, and brass fixtures.

Several factors can also increase the likelihood of lead leaching into tap water, such as:

  • The condition of the pipes and fittings containing lead, particularly how corroded they may be,
  • Whether lead-containing solder is used in connections between new copper and old lead pipes, 
  • The amount of lead in pipes or connections,
  • Whether pipes have protective coatings or natural scaling,
  • The residence time of water in pipes that contain lead, and
  • The temperature and chemistry of the water, including its acidity and its mineral content; i.e., whether it is soft or hard water.

In the 1950s and 60s, new plumbing installations started to use different materials, such as copper and plastic, rather than lead. However, stories of lead poisoning from drinking municipal tap water continue to appear in the news as the transition remains incomplete and some older homes and neighbourhoods still have lead pipes. 

The use of lead for water service lines was permitted by the National Plumbing Code of Canada until 1975, while lead solder was permitted until 1986. Solder containing lead for drinking water supplies was prohibited under this code after 1990. 

What is being done about lead in tap water?

Canadian federal, provincial, and municipal governments work together to mitigate the risks associated with lead pipes through:

  • National building standards and codes, 
  • National and provincial water quality guidelines, and 
  • Municipal programs for water testing, filter installation and pipe replacement assistance. 

Standards and codes aim to ensure new construction does not introduce lead contamination risks into municipal water supply systems and that treated water does not contain hazardous substances like lead. 

Other guidelines and programs protect consumers from existing sources of lead contamination until the area is redeveloped or the homeowner or utility provider replaces components that contain lead. 

Alberta has adopted the Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines, which specify the maximum allowable concentration of lead in drinking water (0.010mg/L). Drinking water that leaves the water treatment plant must adhere to these guidelines, and is tested for compliance at monitoring points throughout the water supply network. Due to the size of most water supply systems, testing at every tap is impractical, however municipal programs offer tap water testing for homes with suspected lead exposure. For instance, EPCOR (Edmonton’s water utility service provider) provides annual notification to residents of homes that are known to have lead service lines and offers complimentary tap water testing for lead. 

Since the issue with lead is due largely to the presence of old piping, a key way of addressing the risk is to replace those pipes with newer ones that do not contain hazardous substances like lead. This means that it is essential for cities and homeowners to have good information about their plumbing and water servicing. 

There is no national database for homes that still have lead pipes in Canada, but individual municipalities can often provide information on the status of lead piping in their communities. For example, the City of Calgary has identified 630 customers with lead service connections, and offers services such as water quality testing, education and a rebate for filtration devices. In areas where utilities do not provide this service, laboratory testing through public health offices is generally available to help determine if there is a risk of lead being present in drinking water.  

What can I do about the possibility of lead in tap water?

If you are concerned about the possibility of lead in your household tap water, there are several steps you can take. 

  • Determine whether your house has lead pipes
    • Contact your water utility provider or municipality and ask for records of lead service lines in your community, or
    • Enlist a plumber or home inspector to identify whether pipes contain lead.
  • If your house has lead pipes, have your tap water tested for lead concentration. In Alberta, there are three ways to do this:
    • Contact your local water utility to see if they offer lead testing in homes with known lead service lines,
    • Arrange for laboratory testing through a local public health office. Visit the Alberta Health website to find service locations, or
    • Arrange for laboratory testing through private, accredited laboratories (at your own expense).  

Alberta Health recommends various actions depending on the results of the lead test and the age of those consuming the water. Please refer to the following document for detailed information. 

“Lead and Drinking Water from Lead Service Lines (2013): Guidance package for Water Utility Companies, Residents, Alberta Health Services, Healthcare Providers, and Laboratories” published by the Alberta Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health. 

Sources and additional information

Calgary Water Services. (n.d.). Lead monitoring in Calgary’s water. Retrieved April 28, 2017, from http://www.calgary.ca/UEP/Water/Pages/Drinking-water/Water-quality/Lead-Service-Connections.aspx

Flint Water Advisory Task Force. (2016). Final Report. From https://www.michigan.gov/documents/snyder/FWATF_FINAL_REPORT_21March2016_517805_7.pdf

Health Canada. (2009). Lead Information Package - Some Commonly Asked Questions About Lead and Human Health. Retrieved July 5, 2017, from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/environmental-workplace-health/environmental-contaminants/lead/lead-information-package-some-commonly-asked-questions-about-lead-human-health.html 

Health Canada. (2013). Final Human Health State of the Science Report on Lead. From https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/environmental-workplace-health/reports-publications/environmental-contaminants/final-human-health-state-science-report-lead.html

Prévost, M. (2013). Lead in Tap Water: Assessing Consumer Exposure and Identifying Corrective Actions, Canadian Water Network.