Canada’s water supply sector under fire once again


Steve DaveySteve Davey
Publisher, President, ES&E Magazine


The entire Canadian water treatment industry came under public scrutiny in 2000 following an outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 at Walkerton, Ontario, where several died and over 2,000 were made ill. This tiny, lethal bug was usually associated with poorly cooked hamburgers, but the tragic events in this small Ontario town brought national awareness and outrage that this could ever happen to Canadian drinking water.

This fall has again been hard on the reputation of Canada’s water supply sector. According to a November 4, 2019 article in the Toronto Star newspaper: “Hundreds of thousands of Canadians are consuming tap water laced with high levels of lead leaching from aging and deteriorating infrastructure.”

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This claim was the result of a year-long investigation by journalists from nine universities and 10 media organizations, including the Toronto Star and the Institute for Investigative Journalism. It involved collecting test results to measure exposure to lead in 11 cities across Canada. Out of 12,000 tests since 2014, 33% exceeded Health Canada’s guideline of 5 parts per billion (ppb), which was lowered from 10 ppb in March.

Reporters also fanned out to 32 cities and towns across the country to visit neighbourhoods with older homes. With the help of residents who volunteered to take part, the teams conducted 260 water tests using accepted standards and submitted samples to accredited labs. The results showed 39% of samples exceeded the national safety guideline.

The consequences of lead poisoning range from kidney damage to reproductive problems, including fertility issues. Lead poses a particular risk to young children.

While the lead levels found by the investigators are worrying homeowners, they themselves have to take some responsibility for them. Many water systems built prior to the mid 1960s used lead piping to connect residences to the street water main, due to its high resistance to corrosion. While the municipality owns and is responsible for the lead piping up to the shutoff valve (usually located at the property line), the homeowner owns and is responsible for it the rest of the way to the dwelling.

Another factor is that until 1986 lead-based solder was used for indoor copper water piping. Therefore, some household plumbing systems may have fittings, faucets and valves which contain lead that can leach into the water.

However, Canada’s water sector has not ignored this issue. Many jurisdictions, like the City of Toronto, have had ongoing lead pipe replacement programs for years and many more have recently announced their initiatives. Last year, ES&E Magazine reported that Edmonton-based water utility EPCOR is investigating fixes to assist owners of older homes with lead service lines, while it optimizes its own lead management program.

The City of Regina also said it is making inroads to replace its side of lead service connections, with just 3,600 remaining. This is less than half of what existed in years past. According to an April 2018 public works committee report, Regina will continue its push to replace all lead pipes before 2050.

In Ottawa, homeowners with lead water pipes that connect to non-lead city pipes are now eligible for a rebate of up to $1,000, about 20% of the total replacement cost. City officials estimate that lead affects about 15% of homes, or some 30,000 residences. Homeowners applying (and waiting) under the lead pipes replacement program could get a year’s worth of free water filters to remove lead from their tap water.

Also, the City conducted a four-year pilot of research experiments to determine a new treatment strategy to meet the new lead standard. Based on the study, a low-dose phosphate strategy has been selected for both of Ottawa’s water treatment plants. Phosphate has been widely used in North America for corrosion control and is considered a best practice for drinking water supplies in older cities with lead service pipes.

Design costs for the new water treatment process of adding phosphate are estimated to be upwards of $1 million. Construction costs, including chemical storage tanks, pumps, piping and related control equipment, are estimated to be $5.5 million.

Let’s hope that initiatives like this and those other cities are taking will help maintain Canadians’ faith in their water supplies. It would be tragic indeed if this situation played into the hands of the bottled water industry, which is famous for making claims about the safety of its product, while at the same time ignoring the solid waste implications for millions of discarded plastic bottles.

This editorial comment appears in ES&E Magazine’s December 2019 issue.


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