Most people will agree that any effort to reduce exposure to lead, especially for children, is welcome news. Lowering the amount of lead in drinking water in a thoughtful, practical and cost-effective way, however, is a more challenging issue.

There has been a lot of media attention recently about lead in drinking water since the release of a year-long investigation by more than 120 journalists from nine universities and 10 media organizations reporting test results of lead in 11 cities across Canada. Here is just one of the recent media stories.

It is not surprising that out of 12,000 tests collected since 2014, 33% exceeded the new national guideline released in March 2019 by Health Canada of 0.005 mg/L or 5 parts per billion (ppb).

Some provinces do not have a legislated standard to hold municipal water system operators legally accountable to stay below a target level for lead. There is such a mechanism in Ontario – the Ontario Drinking Water Quality Standards (O. Reg. 169) requires lead content in drinking water to be no more than 10 ppb. Early indications are that the Ontario government is considering moving to the new, more restrictive national guideline of 5 ppb which will require an amendment to O. Reg. 169. This is the easy part.

Drinking water distributed by most municipal systems is extremely low in lead content at the source. The main source for lead entering the drinking water supply is from lead service lines, lead plumbing, solder or plumbing devices containing lead. The removal of old lead service lines and lead plumbing often found in older homes built before 1955 would be a significant achievement to address the problem. An undertaking to upgrade the infrastructure of this magnitude will require commitment by all levels of government and sustained resources over time to be successful. Even replacing all lead service lines won’t eliminate the problem completely because homes built in the late1980’s may have their plumbing connected with lead base solder, which could also contribute to increased lead content in the water – another significant undertaking.

Despite the legislation in Ontario, a comprehensive response to this issue is no easy task for any of the 444 municipalities in Ontario who operate drinking water systems for a large portion of the population. Some offer free testing and programs for service line replacements while others can only recommend testing by licensed laboratories at the expense of homeowners. On the bright side, advice to the public about flushing and treatment options to remove lead before consuming is consistently communicated by municipalities, the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry, and public health units.

Many local jurisdictions have made significant improvements to address lead in drinking water in their communities over the past decade. Provincially, Ontario has tackled the lead issue in schools and daycares with some success by introducing regulations for lead testing, flushing and requiring test results to be made available publicly.  With a renewed spotlight on this important issue being raised in the media, a new opportunity presents itself to advance public health.

Tony Amalfa, CEO, Advance Public Health Consulting