The good news for consumers of water supplied by the District of Kitimat is that the level of lead contained in the water is well below the maximum acceptable concentration permitted by the federal health ministry.
The bad news is that the municipality can only guarantee this up to the point where the municipal infrastructure delivering the water ends, and the consumer’s begins.
In a notice issued to homes and businesses earlier this month, the DoK noted that while water from municipal infrastructure consistently tests safe “in some cases, water from private property has tested above the current guidelines.”
“The main source of lead in Kitimat’s drinking water is a result of plumbing infrastructure on private property,” read the notice.
DoK director of engineering Alex Ramos-Espinoza said the discrepancy between the levels of lead in the water was detected following a program of rigorous testing for lead and for copper in the District of Kitimat’s water infrastructure launched in the second quarter of 2018.
“Regarding the lead sampling program, samples were taken from both the general water infrastructure and from 59 private homes selected through discussion with Northern Health,” said Ramos-Espinoza. “This process selected homes in various neighbourhoods throughout the community.”
As of March 2019, the maximum acceptable concentration for lead in drinking water in Canada is 0.005 milligrams per litre (mg/L), (5 parts per billion) the level revised from the original level of 0.01 mg/L set in 1992.
Water samples were taken at the DoK’s reservoir and sent for testing by Prince Rupert-based Northern Laboratories. The results were as follows:
* September 18, 2019 – 0.00065 mg/L
* May 14, 2019, – 0.0035mg/L
* December 4, 2018 – 0.00046mg/L
* September 4, 2018 – 0.0012 mg/L.
No lead is used in the District of Kitimat’s water mains and services. Materials used include cast iron, steel, PVC, asbestos cement, copper and PEP (which is commonly used in households).
Ramos-Espinoza wouldn’t provide details on which of the 59 homes posted higher-than-normal levels of lead, which neighbourhood they were in or when they were built.
“These homes are located throughout the community. The homes’ lead levels were tested on three separate days…for various homes, lead concentrations were above the maximum acceptable concentrations,” he said, adding that no strata or apartment complex homes were tested.
“Under the BC lead and water guidelines this is the responsibility of the [strata or apartment complex] homeowners.”
Ramos-Espinoza stressed, however, that there is no requirement for homeowners to test their water and that the guidelines provided in the notice to users would safeguard homeowners.
What you can do at home
Flush faucets until the water runs as cold as possible before using the water for drinking, cooking or brushing teeth. This is especially important when the water has been sitting in the pipes for long periods of time. When the water runs noticeably colder, you are receiving fresh water from beyond the building.
Install lead removing filters on your drinking water taps. These are available at hardware stores. Filters should state that they are certified to NSF/ANSI standard 53.
REPLACE Replace pipes and plumbing fixtures containing lead and copper in your building. Replace with CSA low lead content verified plumbing materials.
NOTE: These options are at the homeowner’s expense.
What are the health concerns?
According to the provincial health ministry, prolonged exposure to elevated levels of lead can impair neurological development. Infants, children, and pregnant women are most susceptible to these effects.
“Some of the known health effects of lead consumption include increased blood pressure, renal dysfunction in adults, reduced cognition, impaired hearing and adverse behavioural/neurodevelopmental effects in fetuses, infants and children,” reads a Northern Health advisory.
The advisory further notes that research shows that reductions in IQ are associated with lead levels of 0.01mg/L, which was the maximum acceptable concentration until 1992 before being revised to 0.005 mg/L.
“Every effort must be made to ensure that lead levels are maintained as low as reasonable achievable as there is no known concentration of lead that is considered ‘safe’.”
Northern Health said that while families concerned about lead at home can test the tap water used for drinking and food preparation using home testing kits available online and in local hardware stores, the “results may not be trustworthy.”
Local hardware store owner Pier Bravo said while the store doesn’t carry testing kits, they are available and range in price from $35 up to $200. He said an option that some homeowners have opted for is a water filtering system typically installed by a contractor.
Northern Health recommended also having the water tested by sending a water sample off to a Canadian Association for Laboratory Accreditation (CALA) approved laboratory to test for lead. These lab tests may cost $30 to $75, plus tax and shipping, depending on how many metals you choose to test for.
Northern Health lists five labs in B.C. that are CALA-approved.
Lessons learned through tragedy – Flint, Michigan
The dangers of especially lead in drinking water is a health concern in many Canadian communities. Until 1975, lead was commonly used in plumbing fixtures, solders and pipes.
Copper is still commonly used in plumbing infrastructure. Under certain conditions lead and copper can leach into drinking water through contact with plumbing infrastructure on private property.
The danger of especially lead in drinking water became very apparent following the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, in the U.S., when it emerged that the town’s drinking water contained extremely high levels of lead.
Following an oversight by water officials, lead from aging pipes leached into the water supply, exposing over 100,000 residents to extremely elevated lead levels. It’s estimated that between 6,000 and 12,000 children were exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead.
Links between the high level of lead in the water and an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the county that killed 12 people and affected another 87 were also investigated. To put the Flint crisis in perspective, in a report released in March 2016, water samples from 37 of 423 site that were tested had results above 15 parts per billion (ppb), eight of the samples exceeding 100 ppb.
The Canadian federal government’s maximum allowable concentration for lead in drinking water is five parts per billion.