Blog: Just Because We Can’t See It

Blog authored by CELA Counsel Jacqueline Wilson

We’ve known for a long time that exposure to lead can have serious health consequences, especially for fetuses and young children. Although there is widespread recognition of the health impacts of lead, we’re not doing nearly enough to address it.

Ontario is proud of its “source-to-tap” approach to protecting drinking water. After the Walkerton tragedy, Justice O’Connor determined that a multi-barrier approach to protect drinking water was needed to avoid another tragedy. A multi-barrier approach means you need to take action to ensure safe drinking water at the water source, treatment plant, reservoirs, distribution points and taps.

But Ontario is falling far short of multi-barrier protection when it comes to lead in drinking water. Lead service lines and fixtures are still common in older houses. Municipalities take the position that they are responsible for only half of the lead service line, and the half of the lead service line from the property line to the house is the property owner’s responsibility. Sometimes only half the line is replaced, and the rest of the time property owners need to be able and willing to take on the financial burden to fix the second half. Across the province there are a mishmash of policies attempting to address this problem, for instance grants or loans to property owners, but they are inconsistent and are certainly not enough to ensure the problem is solved soon.

CELA released a report on lead in drinking water in 2019 and highlighted the ongoing health concerns of lead exposure, especially for pregnant mothers and young children. We made five recommendations to address this ongoing environmental health problem. Not a lot has changed since that time. It’s time to start addressing the problem head on.

CELA is renewing its call to:

I. Lower the mandatory minimum standard to 5 micrograms per litre in Ontario, and strive for much lower levels of lead
II. Identify exactly where the lead service lines are and create an inventory and notice requirements
III. Create an enforceable plan for the complete removal of lead service lines
IV. Reduce risk through corrosion control
V. Raise awareness of the problem through public education

We’re encouraged by the commitment in the Ontario Environment minister’s annual report on drinking water (2019), where the Ministry has begun a review of Ontario’s lead standard of 10 micrograms per litre based on the revised Health Canada guideline of 5 micrograms per litre and the advice of the Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Council. We strongly support strengthening the Ontario standard to 5 micrograms per litre, and to strive for lead-free drinking water.

CELA recommended in its report that the Safe Drinking Water Act and its regulations should be amended to require that a minimum of 75% of lead service lines in municipalities be replaced within 3-5 years. We need a legislative amendment because progress is much too slow, and generally relies on homeowners deciding to take action on their own.

CELA renews it call to action. It’s time to get the lead out of our drinking water. Just because we can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there – and causing real harm.