Is Canada’s tap water safe? Thousands of test results show high lead levels across the country


Hundreds of thousands of Canadians could be consuming tap water laced with high levels of lead leaching from aging infrastructure and plumbing, a large collection of newly released data and documents reveals.

It’s a key conclusion of a year-long investigation by more than 120 journalists from nine universities and 10 media organizations, including Global News and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism.

While the water generally contains no lead when it leaves municipal treatment plants, the main sources of the contamination are lead service lines — the pipes that connect homes and apartment buildings with eight dwellings or less to water mains — as well as plumbing fixtures that contain lead and lead solder.

Many cities said that some of the hundreds of thousands of lead pipes underground would likely not be replaced for decades. In addition, the cities also said it was difficult to co-ordinate replacements since they would require property owners to pay for changing lead pipes on the private side of the property line.

The journalists collected test results that measured lead content in tap water in 11 cities. Out of 12,000 tests conducted by cities since 2014, one-third — 33 per cent — exceeded the national safety guideline of five parts per billion (ppb).

In response to questions from Global News and its partners, many municipalities admitted they didn’t even know how many lead service lines are within their city limits, due to inadequate record-keeping and the lack of requirement for some municipalities to conduct tests.

A federal parliamentary committee recently stated in a December 2017 report that at least 500,000 homes across Canada were being serviced by antiquated lead pipes.

In addition, the journalists working on this investigation interviewed nearly 1,000 people and filed more than 700 requests through freedom-of-information legislation to get access to the thousands of municipal water sample test results, which were never previously posted publicly. These add up to a collection of about 79,000 results since 2004.

“I’m shocked, I’m disappointed, I’m angry,” says Michèle Prevost, a Quebec engineering professor who advises governments around the world about drinking water.