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CBC MARKETPLACE: HEALTH LEAD
Lead in drinking water
Broadcast: March 27, 2001 | Producer: Ines Colabresel; Research: Leonardo Palleja & Jenny Wells
 


Wendy Leigh-Bell of Hamilton, Ontario, was warned not to drink her water after tests found high lead levels in her drinking water

Lead is dangerous to everyone and particularly to children. It can cause learning disabilities and lowered IQ. So for decades Canadians have been taking steps to lower the amount of lead in our tap water. We have had some success.

But lead in drinking water remains a problem for many Canadian families. Part of the reason may be because of the way we test for lead.


Across the country, Canadians have spent hundreds of millions of dollars digging up streets and sidewalks to replace water pipes that leach lead into drinking water. But the work has just begun. It will take years and cost millions more to replace old lead pipes with copper.

  • Related story: Home Water Filter Systems

Two years ago Wendy Leigh-Bell watched more than just her children digging up the front yard. The water pressure in her home had reached an all-time low. That is sometimes a sign of old pipes.


Barbara McElgunn of the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada maintains there is no safe level for lead exposure

Leigh-Bell decided to have her water tested. Not long afterward, city officials called her at home.

"We received a phone call that we ought not to drink the water…because we had a level that was three times the allowable limit for lead," Leigh-Bell told Marketplace.

The house still had lead pipes coming from the street. The city replaced part of the pipes and the family paid $600 to get the rest removed. To be safe, they now drink only bottled water.

Lead has a toxic effect on the brain, especially for young children whose brains are still developing.

Barbara McElgunn of the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada says that reduced IQ is just one result of lead exposure. She maintains there is no safe level for lead.

The effects of lead that scientists and pediatricians are most concerned with now go beyond reduced IQ. There are concerns arising from research into the effect of lead on emotional reactivity, aggression, social confidence and social functioning.


"It illustrates the fact that everybody's at some risk," says University of North Carolina lead expert, Dr. Richard Maas

Lead in our water is not a new problem. In 1988, Marketplace reported on the danger of lead in school water supplies.

The report caused Canadian officials to lower the maximum allowable lead level for drinking water.

But what is the state of the lead in Canada's drinking water today? Marketplace tested water from 50 homes across the country.

We sampled water from homes in:

  • Saint John, New Brunswick
  • Toronto
  • Hamilton
  • Winnipeg
  • Vancouver

Half the homes were built before 1970, half were built after 1970.

The results? Fifteen of the fifty homes had lead levels above the national guideline. One even had levels at 250 times the maximum allowable limit.

Most of the problems came from homes built before 1970. Of the 25 homes we tested that were built before 1970, eleven had high lead levels.

We told Dr. Richard Maas about our test results. He

"It illustrates the fact that everybody's at some risk," Maas told Marketplace. "If you're in an older home, you're probably at more risk."
is a scientist at the University of North Carolina and an internationally renowned specialist on lead in water.

"It illustrates the fact that everybody's at some risk," Maas told Marketplace. "If you're in an older home, you're probably at more risk."

When should your water should be tested? While you're sleeping, water is at rest in your pipes for hours. If there's lead anywhere in your system, it will leach into the water. It takes just two hours for standing water to absorb a lot of lead.

If there is lead in your water, you are most likely to find it at first draw; the water that comes out when you first turn on the tap. There's usually less lead when the tap has been run or flushed, as it's called in the industry.

For each of the 50 homes in the Marketplace study, we tested the water twice: first thing in the morning and once after the water had been run for three minutes.

Each of the 15 homes with high lead levels got those numbers when the sample was taken at first draw, before the water was run. After the water had been run for three minutes, most homes were free of excessive lead. But two still had problems, even after the water had been run.

In the United States, if you're assessing lead contamination of drinking water you are required by law to take water from the first draw.

In Canada, when federal and provincial governments test drinking water for lead, they do so only after it's been run for three minutes. That's a strategy that's gained some critics.

"If you don't want to find the lead problem that's a good sampling strategy for doing that," Dr. Richard Maas said.

Dave Green, Health Canada's representative on the federal-provincial committee that drafts the guidelines for Canada's drinking water, says the key is to determine the average amount of lead that is in the water a person consumes.


Health Canada's Dave Green says regulations for testing for lead in water in Canada are adequate. Canada does not require samples to be taken at first draw as the United States does

Green disagrees with the suggestion that water should be tested at first draw, given that our tests showed that flushing the water reduced lead levels in 13 of the 15 samples.

"I would say that one method of trying to estimate how much lead is consumed by people in their drinking water in the way we have it on a flushed sample is just as valid as taking first flushed samples, as the U.S. does," Green said.

Richard Maas disagrees.

"If you do all your sampling after a three to five minute flush, then you are greatly underestimating the average concentration of lead in the water because you're only looking at flushed water," Maas told Marketplace.

Dave Green notes that his department tries to publicize as much as possible that people should let their water run for three to five minutes in the morning, before drinking it. He admits, though, that he has no idea whether most people realize that.

As for Wendy Leigh Bell, we re-tested for lead in her house tap water. It came in at 3.5 times the allowable maximum.

The lead could be coming from any one of several sources: more lead pipes, lead solder on the copper or even lead in the faucet. It's tough to trace.          

We tested the tap water in 50 homes in five cities across Canada. Twenty-five homes were built before 1970 and 25 were built after 1970.

We tested the water from each home twice: once before the water was run (the tap had not been used for 6 hours) and once after it had run for three minutes.

Here’s what we found: The water from 15 of the 50 homes we tested had lead levels above the Maximum Allowable Level. These samples were taken before the water was run. That means there were high lead levels in 30 per cent of the homes. One additional home had lead levels exactly at the limit.

But the real problems were with the homes built before 1970. Of the 25 homes we tested, 11 had high lead levels before the water was run. That means almost 50 per cent of the houses built before 1970 had high lead levels before water was run.

Only one house continued to have high lead levels after the water was run for three minutes.

St. John, New Brunswick, was the city with the highest number of houses with high lead levels. Six of the ten homes we tested in Saint John had high lead levels before the water was run.


Detailed Results
Maximum allowable limit = 0.01 ppb
Figures in boldface exceed allowable limits

Toronto, ON
Age of Home
First Draw Level
Flushed Level
Pre 1970
0.013
0.002
Pre 1970
0.013
0.002
 
Saint John, NB
Age of Home
First Draw Level
Flushed Level
Pre 1970
0.043
0.021
Pre 1970
0.036
0.002
Post 1970
0.253
0.004
Post 1970
0.054
0.002
Post 1970
0.011
0.002
Post 1970
0.033
0.002
 
Hamilton, ON
Age of Home
First Draw Level
Flushed Level
Pre 1970
0.035
0.002
Pre 1970
0.014
0.008
Post 1970
0.010
0.002
 
Winnipeg, MN
Age of Home
First Draw Level
Flushed Level
Pre 1970
0.022
0.017
Pre 1970
0.050
0.007
 
Vancouver, BC
Age of Home
First Draw Level
Flushed Level
Pre 1970
0.047
0.002
Pre 1970
0.019
0.006
Pre 1970
0.025
0.002

 

"We recognize now that there is no threshold dose below which lead does not cause neurologic damage," says Dr. Richard Maas

Dr. Richard P. Maas is Chairman of the University of North Carolina Asheville Environmental Studies Department and the Research Director of the university's Environmental Quality Institute.

Dr. Maas has directed many water quality studies on local streams, lakes, and groundwater. He has been a frequent consultant to the US Environmental Protection Agency on drinking water quality issues.

Dr. Maas' Institute is offering to test your water — before and after flushing — for $28 Canadian.

For details, you can contact the Environmental Studies Department at the University of North Carolina at 1-828-251-6441

By mail:
Dr. Richard Maas
University of North Carolina at Asheville
Environmental Studies Program
226 Robinson Hall, CPO# 2330
One University Heights
Asheville, NC 28804-8511
USA
 


Maas: I am the co-director of the UNC-Asheville Environmental Quality Institute. The EQI is a public university environmental research institute dedicated to serving community groups and government agencies and even private companies in providing objective unbiased independent research on almost any type of environmental issue.

No safe level of lead exposure

"We recognize now that there is no threshold dose below which lead does not cause neurologic damage. Any amount of lead that you get is going to kill some neurons, so clearly lead in drinking water adds to other possible lead exposures and makes the cumulative damage worse.

"It's estimated that in the United States and Canada about 15 to 20 per cent of the total lead exposure of a person is going to come from drinking water and so certainly if we can eliminate that exposure that would be a first 15 or 20 per cent reduction. Now, that's the average person, realize that in our institute we run into families with children everyday who have high levels of lead in their drinking water. So they are getting all of their exposure from drinking water and in fact they're getting enough exposure from drinking water single handedly to cause elevated blood lead levels and lead poisoning."

On running your water before drinking it

"What happens is that initially in the first few minutes after the water has been flushed, the lead builds back up in the system very rapidly and then later it continues to build up but ever more slowly. To give you an example, we have found that in two hours you get about 85 to 90 per cent of the lead concentration that you would get in an overnight dwell of say 8 hours. In just 30 minutes you get about 50 per cent of what builds up in 8 hours and remarkably enough, about 30 per cent of the lead that you would build up in an overnight dwell…builds up in the first 10 minutes.

"We've now documented this in hundreds, thousands of households to be the fact. What this means is that you can't assume that the water is purged even if the family is hanging out in the evening and water is getting used occasionally and toilets are being flushed. You can't assume that it's flushed because even in 10 minutes you're getting 30 per cent of the overnight dwell concentration. That means that you would have to flush for a minute before each time that you used the water."

     Report Ends Here
 

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