Addressing Lead in Drinking Water: We Did Part of the Job, Now Let’s Finish It

Blog post by CELA Counsel, Maria Lucas

Fourteen years ago, the Ontario government set up a comprehensive approach to dealing with lead in drinking water in the affected communities in the province. This included establishing a lead standard of 10 µg/L against which to test for potentially dangerous levels of lead in drinking water. In the “A Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan”, the Ontario government has committed to updating current policies and consulting on further actions to reduce levels of lead in drinking water. It remains to be seen what this consultation will look like. CELA anticipates that the Ontario government will propose to reduce the current lead standard of 10 µg/L to ensure consistency with the federal lead standard of 5 µg/L. However, more is needed because many communities have made very slow progress on ensuring that old lead service lines (LSLs) are removed.

Removal is important because LSLs can cause lead to leach into drinking water in homes, particularly when a community’s drinking water is not well controlled for “corrosion”. Exposure to lead can result in serious long-term impacts on health. At high levels of exposure, lead can damage the prefrontal cortex, contribute to anti-social behaviour and behavioural problems in children, cause prenatal growth abnormalities and is an established risk factor for hypertension, chronic kidney disease and tremors in adults.

Removing LSLs from community water distribution systems is a very effective means of reducing lead levels in drinking water and thereby protecting public health. In an effort to do this, the US government has proposed to replace 100% of the nation’s LSLs. The American Jobs Plan commits to reducing lead exposure in 400,000 schools and child care centers and in 6 to 10 million homes. To fund the plan, President Biden said he’ll ask Congress to invest $45 billion in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and in Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act grants. It will take an estimated 10 years to fulfill the plan. 

To further address lead in drinking water in the United States, the EPA is conducting ongoing consultations regarding the Revised Lead and Copper Rule (LCR). The EPA published the LCR in 1991 to control lead and copper in drinking water. The EPA’s most recent proposal to revise the LCR takes a proactive and holistic approach that includes testing, treatment and informing the public about the levels and risks of lead in drinking water.

A recent study revealed that hundreds of thousands of Canadians are consuming tap water containing high levels of lead. In Ontario, the primary source of lead in drinking water are LSLs. CELA has recommended that Ontario’s Safe Drinking Water Act, 2002 and its regulations be amended to require that a minimum of 75% of LSLs in municipalities be replaced within 3-5 years. CELA will advocate for this target in any forthcoming consultation with the Ontario government. CELA looks forward to working with the Ontario government and specifically the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks on updating water quality standards with regards to lead with a view to removing lead from drinking water entirely.

Ontario made a good start in addressing lead in drinking water all those years ago, but renewed attention is required to finish the job of ensuring that none of our kids are exposed to high lead levels in their drinking water.