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Is there a lead problem with your drinking water? We asked the city

Toronto Star series focuses on potentially toxic public health problem, but what does it mean for Sudbury?
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A recent Toronto Star series on the dangers of lead in drinking water found that one-third of the 12,000 tests for lead in Canada since 2014 exceeded national safety guidelines.

A recent Toronto Star series on the dangers of lead in drinking water found that one-third of the 12,000 tests for lead in Canada since 2014 exceeded national safety guidelines.

The year-long investigation collected historic data from 11 major Canadian cities, and 120 journalists involved in the story also fanned out across 32 cities to test water in older homes. They found 39 per cent of those homes exceeded national safety guidelines for lead content of five parts per billion.

So what's the situation in Greater Sudbury? Should we be concerned?

In an interview last week, infrastructure GM Tony Cecutti said Greater Sudbury was contacted by the Toronto Star for the series and the city provided the data they wanted.

Cecutti said there is no issue whatsoever with lead content coming from municipal water sources. The problem emerges in older homes and institutions and the pipes they use on their property to connect to the municipal system.

“There is lead testing on the public side and there's lead testing on the private side,” he said. “Certainly on the public side … our drinking water is excellent and safe and fully compliant with all regulations and standards.”

On the private side, homes built before the 1950s have a higher probability that lead pipes were used to bring water into the home. And lead solvent was still being used to join pipes in homes built between the 1950s and the 1980s.

The city is mandated to do testing in older homes where lead is more likely present, but homeowners must volunteer to take part in the test.

“So we'll approach homeowners (with houses) that we believe are of an older age and we'll ask if they'd be willing to have their water tested,” Cecutti said. “Frankly, we have not had a lot of trouble finding people to volunteer once they understand what the program is test for.”

The tests aim to measure lead content in stagnate water — the worst-case scenario, he said, where if lead is present, it is likely going to be at its highest level.

“If we go into an older home at the start of a sampling program, we're probably going to get some lead if we already know the home likely has some lead piping or lead solvent joints,” he said.

That puts into context the findings of the Toronto Star – they are testing homes most likely to have lead in the water. So the test results show a much higher rate of lead content than if they were testing a random sample or cross-section of older and new of homes. And the story doesn't distinguish between test results – sometimes multiple samples are taken from the same house to confirm an earlier test, or to try and gauge the source of the lead.

So a house tested three times would be reported in the story as three failed tests, even though the sample comes from the same residence.

Under provincial regulations, some areas of Greater Sudbury no longer require testing of homes for lead, because past samples have not found any issues. In Sudbury, the only system tested is the Wanapetei Plant and David Street Plant. All other systems have been exempt. 

“Unless requested, we do not need to retest in the future, but we still do sample the municipal water for lead under 170/03 regulations requirements,” city spokesperson Kelli Sheppard said in an email.

But testing for lead in water is done every year across the city: between Dec. 15, 2017, and April 15, 2018, 69 private homes or institutions on the Sudbury system and Onaping/Levack system were tested, involving 335 samples. Sometimes duplicate tests are done to make sure the results match up, or additional samples are taken from different sources of a home.

Between June 15, 2018, and Oct. 15, 2018, 67 private sites were tested, and between Dec. 15, 2018, and April 15, 2019, 44 private sites were tested, the same number sampled between June 15 and Oct. 15 this year.

If lead is found to exceed the safety standards, the lab has 24 hours to report it to the city, the health unit and the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks.

“The city will then go out and re-sample to ensure that this was an accurate result,” the email said. “The municipality has seven days from receiving the result to send the homeowner a report indicating the results and if they are over the limit, give advice from the medical officer of health, the necessary steps the resident should take and a phone number to provide any additional information if needed.”

Cecutti said that once a homeowner is informed, they often will change some key piping or water fixtures (which can also contain lead) and have the water tested again.

“And then, guess what? No more lead in the samples.”

Schools and daycares, which often reside in older buildings, conduct their own testing. The Toronto Star provides a link where you can look up where your school or daycare has a lead problem.

But a quick search for Sudbury failed to turn up any local institutions with a lead problem.

For anyone who is concerned about lead in their drinking water, Cecutti said the city has programs to help.

“For your readers' benefit, if anybody's not sure, by all means they can contact 311 and say you want to volunteer to have your water tested,” he said. “If your home was built after the mid 1980s, it's an extremely low possibility that you're going to find anything. But if you did all your own plumbing using copper pipe and bought old solder from a hardware store, some of that solder could have lead in it.”

The testing takes about an hour, and results are available in about 10 days. While the current standard is 10 parts per billion, a tougher standard of five parts per billion is expected to be part of new regulations.

“So we've been sampling against the new number for a while now,” Cecutti said. “We're confident that our drinking water on on the public side will meet the new regulation. So, you know, the community can be very confident in the public drinking water system – and in how robust and how safe it is.”