What's in your water? Winnipeg not testing for all contaminants

Does Winnipeg's drinking water contain traces of cyanide, of the cancer-causing chemicals vinyl chloride and carbon tetrachloride, or the pesticides paraquat and carbaryl? The answer, some experts say, is nobody knows for sure because the City of Winnipeg doesn’t routinely test for them.

City says water is safe and testing for all contaminants is not necessary

If you live in Winnipeg, does your drinking water contain traces of cyanide, or the cancer-causing chemicals vinyl chloride and carbon tetrachloride, or the pesticides paraquat and carbaryl? 2:35
If you live in Winnipeg, does your drinking water contain traces of cyanide, or the cancer-causing chemicals vinyl chloride and carbon tetrachloride, or the pesticides paraquat and carbaryl?
Michelle Klimczak, a Winnipeg mother of three, says having information about what's in the drinking water outweighs the cost of testing. (CBC)

The answer, some experts say, is that nobody knows for sure because the City of Winnipeg doesn't routinely test for them.

There are 75 health-related drinking water contaminants that Health Canada includes in its voluntary drinking water guidelines, but Winnipeg is not testing for 26 of them.

"The health of Canadians is being put at risk in many of these instances because we're simply not taking these issues seriously," said Eva Pip, a professor at the University of Winnipeg who studies water quality and toxicology.

"For many of these chemicals we know what the health effects are, what the risks are. And therefore we should be looking for these chemicals to ensure that we are not being unreasonably exposed to them."

Does Winnipeg's drinking water contain traces of cyanide, of the cancer-causing chemicals vinyl chloride and carbon tetrachloride, or the pesticides paraquat and carbaryl? The answer, some experts say, is nobody knows for sure because the City of Winnipeg doesn’t routinely test for them. 1:39

While Winnipeg does test for 49 of the contaminants, a CBC News evaluation of drinking water testing across the country found other cities do more extensive testing. The City of Ottawa tests for all 75 on Health Canada's list, while Halifax, Calgary and Edmonton test for all but one, and Montreal tests for all but two.

The Province of Manitoba regulates drinking water and licenses municipal drinking water operations, including Winnipeg's.

When it comes to microbiological testing such as bacteria, the city says it goes above and beyond provincial requirements for things like E. coli and coliform.

As well, some chemical tests that are required to be done quarterly are done on a monthly basis.

"Water quality is our top priority so we do go above and beyond provincial requirements," said Renee Grosselle, Winnipeg's manager of environmental standards.
The City of Winnipeg goes above and beyond provincial requirements, said Renee Grosselle, Winnipeg’s manager of environmental standards. (CBC)

Grosselle said some of the contaminants on Health Canada's list are not included in Winnipeg's testing because a risk assessment done by the province determined they were unlikely to be present in the city's source water, which comes from Shoal Lake near the Manitoba-Ontario border.

"Some of the parameters that we're not testing for … either have historically not been in our water or don't have a mechanism to get into our treatable water. For example, the disinfection byproducts were for processes we don't use," explained Tim Shanks, the city's manager of water services.

Shanks said the city doesn't need to test for chlorite and chlorate because they are byproducts of chlorine dioxide, which isn't used in Winnipeg's water treatment process.

'The water is safe'

"The water is safe and everything we do, really, even from the smallest component of our operation, to the overall management of it, is structured around making the water safe and ensuring the water's safe," Shanks said.

At the province's Office of Drinking Water, director Kim Philip said it's not necessary to test for all 75 contaminants in all cities.
It’s not necessary to test for all 75 contaminants in all cities, said Kim Philip, director of the province’s Office of Drinking Water.

"It's not necessary to test for them if you know a parameter is not found in the environment and it's not used in the treatment process or not likely to be created somehow in the treatment process. Then there's no real reason to test for it," Philip said.

"Some of them are quite expensive to test for, so it becomes a bit of a burden if you're unnecessarily testing for parameters, or if you have a history that says this has never been detected even in the environment."

The city spends roughly $850,000 annually on water testing.

"Water testing is expensive," said Philip. "I'm sure taxpayers appreciate that we're focusing our testing on things that are of critical health importance and the things that we're actually finding out there, you know, in the environment."

Said Pip, "You know, it is very sad that it always has to come down to dollars."

She added, "They should be testing for everything. Maybe not all the time, but at least on a periodic basis rather than never testing for them at all."

Canada lacks standards

Instead of voluntary guidelines, Canada should nave national enforceable standards, Pip said.

"There is very little political will and this is not just with respect to water quality, but I think the environment as a whole," she said, "and all of the issues that are going on with the deterioration of our environment in Canada."

Citizens like Michael Elves and Michelle Klimczak and their three children drink Winnipeg's tap water but don't spend much time thinking about water quality.

"For the most part, I've been drinking tap water all my life," said Elves. "I've never seen a problem with it and so I just take it for granted."

But the couple agreed that having more testing data about the water is better than having less.

"I think ultimately the more information that people have, the better able they are to make decisions around their own health. So at the end of the day I think that outweighs any kind of cost issue," said Klimczak.

"If people can't identify a problem, they can't identify a solution," said Elves.

Pip said Canada lags behind many other developed countries when it comes to requirements for testing of drinking water.

"When we look for substances in water that we don't expect to find, we often do find them. And that turns out to be a surprise," she said.

"Water is such a basic need, we need it every day. We can't exist without it."


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