By Carol MacLellan and Jacqueline Wilson
Lead has long been an issue in Ontario’s drinking water. In 2007, after the London Free Press broke the story that there were high levels of lead that had gone undetected in the municipal drinking water system, the Ontario environment ministry ordered 36 municipalities across the province to test for lead. Testing showed that over 46% of those communities had at least one plumbing sample that exceeded the Ministry standard for lead in drinking water of 10 ug/L.
As part of CELA’s ongoing campaign to remove the remaining sources of lead from our drinking water, we decided to check how these municipalities were doing. We also looked at 11 other communities reporting high lead levels to the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.
Results of lead testing, as well as testing for other contaminants, are available in public datasets released annually, which you can find online here. CELA reviewed the lead in drinking water test results for 47 municipalities in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 datasets. Results include testing in municipal drinking water systems, and in schools and child care centres where those facilities were identifiable as located in the community in question.
We looked at the lead results and applied both the current provincial standard of 10 µg/L, and the more stringent, safer 5 µg/L recommended by the federal government. Health Canada lowered the lead in drinking water guideline in 2019, recognizing the significant impact on the blood lead levels of children.
What we found was concerning and requires immediate action by the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks to protect the health of everyone – especially children.
There are too many communities that STILL have high lead levels – and that fail to meet the 10 µg/L lead in drinking water standard in Ontario.
There is some good news. At the bottom of this blog are tables outlining the lead results for all of the communities we reviewed, and there are some communities that have not had any results over the 10 µg/L, or only a very few exceedances. The drinking water systems for Alexandria, Amherstburg, Beardmore, Kenora, Picton and St. Mary’s reported no lead exceedances in either data set.
BUT – the biggest takeaway from this data is that we’re doing worse than we think. There are some surprisingly high results, and the percentage of exceedances skyrockets when we apply the more stringent, more protective standard of 5 ug/L.
- The City of Brantford: The City of Brantford Drinking Water System is an interesting case. When CELA reviewed the 2019-2020 dataset, Brantford had not been required to report since 2018-2019. It reported no exceedances at that time. In the 2020-2021 drinking water data set, 11.4% of the samples failed the 10 ug/L, and 25% would fail a more stringent 5 ug/L standard. The huge jump in exceedances is one of the reasons CELA is strongly recommending lead service line removal as the primary way to combat high lead levels; lead levels can change dramatically from year to year.
- The City of Hamilton: The City of Hamilton drinking water systems are also an interesting case study. CELA co-hosted a webinar on lead in drinking water with Environment Hamilton in October 2021. It has approximately 20,000 lead service lines remaining in the City. At first glance, the percentage of exceedances does not look high; in 2019-2020, 2.9% of test results were above the 10 ug/L standard, and 6.8% would have been above a 5 ug/L standard. In 2020-2021, 1.7% of the test results were above the 10 ug/L standard, and 4.8% would have been above a 5 ug/L standard. A close look at the number of exceedances, as opposed to percentages, reveals a broader concern. There were 49 exceedances reported in 2019-2020, in different settings: 23 in municipal drinking water systems, 20 in schools, 5 in child care centres, and 1 other. In 2020-2021, the 27 exceedances reported were all in schools or a daycare. With so many remaining lead service lines, a stock of old housing, and high numbers of exceedances reported from schools and daycare centres, lead in drinking water remains a critical public health issue in Hamilton.
- The City of Quinte West/ Trenton: Trenton was reporting high lead exceedances. In 2019-2020, Trenton reported 16.2% of samples above the 10 ug/L standard, which would have been 27.9% of samples above a 5 ug/L standard. All of the exceedances in 2019-2020 were in schools. In 2020-2021, Trenton reported a failure rate of 17.9% for water samples tested against the 10 ug/L standard, which would have been a failure rate of 34.3% at a more protective 5 ug/L standard. In 2020-2021, the reported exceedances were still all in schools.
- The Town of Smith Falls: In the 2019-2020 dataset, 15.4% of samples were above the 10 ug/L standard, and 26.2% would have been above a 5 ug/L standard. All of the exceedances were from the municipal drinking water system. In 2020-2021, the level of exceedances remained high, with 13% of samples over the 10 ug/L standard, which would have been 27.8% above a 5 ug/L standard. All but one of the exceedances in this data set where in the municipal drinking water system.
- The City of Thunder Bay: CELA’s lead campaign hosted a webinar in August 2021 which include a case study of Thunder Bay area’s drinking water system. There are an estimated 6,300 public lead service lines and 8,500 private lead services lines in the area. Thunder Bay also introduced a corrosion control program to lower lead levels, but it was phased out in 2020. In the 2019-2020 data set, Thunder Bay reported 2.7% of lead results exceeded the a 5 ug/L standard, and 9.5% of samples would have exceeded a 10 ug/L standard. In the 2020-2021 data set, 13.4% exceeded the 5 ug/L standard, which would have been a 31.7% fail rate at a 10 ug/L standard.
- Lucan Biddulph: The township of Lucan Biddulph’s drinking water system had concerning results. In 2019-2020, it reported no exceedances at the 10 µg/L, but 20.7% of its samples were above 5 µg/L. The results were worse in 2020-2021. 11.4% of its examples were above the 10 µg/L standard and a shocking 42.9% of its results were above a 5 µg/L standard.
There are limitations in the data that need to be kept in mind. The data may underestimate the levels of lead in drinking water in a community for a few reasons. We are aware of concerns that there is not enough guidance about where the samples are taken within a drinking water system such that there is not a focused effort to take samples in areas with known lead service lines, for instance.
Sometimes the number of samples being taken is so low that a change in percentage only reflects 1 or 2 more exceedances from year to year. CELA’s recommendations on improving the legislation and regulations governing lead in drinking water highlight other concerns about sampling methods and reporting lead exceedances. But a review of the data does clearly demonstrate an ongoing lead in drinking water problem, especially if the problem is measured against a more stringent, more appropriate standard of 5 µg/L.
CELA is calling on the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks to lower the lead in drinking water standard to the safer, federally recommended level of 5 µg/L.
When Health Canada lowered the lead in drinking water guideline to a maximum acceptable concentration (“MAC”) of 5 µg/L in 2019, it recognized that the new guideline would be safer for children. Health Canada found that the change from 10 µg/L to 5 µg/L would have a significant impact on the blood lead levels of children. A corresponding change to the Ontario standard is long overdue. A more stringent Ontario standard will more accurately reflect the harm being caused by lead in drinking water across the province.
In 2021, the MECP committed to review and updates its lead in drinking water policies. We strongly support that commitment. It’s time for the MECP to follow through on its commitment to update its lead in drinking water. Strengthening the lead in drinking water standard to 5 μg/L is one important step to better protect children and other vulnerable people from the effects of lead.