Data released by the City of Toronto shows that 13 per cent of households that submitted water samples in a voluntary lead-testing program over a six-year period may be exposed to dangerous levels of the element in their drinking water.

The revelation comes from data collected from 15,000 water samples provided to the city by homeowners from 2008-2014 through the Residential Lead Testing Program. The information was obtained by the Toronto Star through an access to information request.

About 2,000 water samples contained lead levels higher than Health Canada’s recommended ten parts per billion limit.

Prolonged exposure to even small amounts of lead can have serious effects on the brain and nervous system in humans, but is particularly dangerous for children during their early developmental phases, fetuses and pregnant women.

Homes built before the mid-1950’s are most susceptible to increased lead levels, with the highest concentration of Toronto homes with elevated levels found in south Annex, High Park, Lawrence Park and East York neighbourhoods.

According to Lou Di Gironimo, head of Toronto Water, approximately 40,000 homes throughout the city still have lead pipe water service. Lead in tap water likely comes from aging pipes on city property, but can also come from service pipes on the homeowner’s side of the property line, Di Gironimo said.

In 2007, council approved a $236 million overhaul for lead pipes connected to 65,000 homes, with the work expected to be completed by 2016, but the immense cost of the project and hesitancy of homeowners to pay the high cost of replacing lead pipes on their own property.

“We ask homeowners to become aware themselves. Call a plumber, get them into your home to check to see if that service line is lead,” said Di Gironimo.

Ward 31 Beaches-East York Coun. Janet Davis told CBC News the only way to get the lead-pipe removal program back on track was for the city to provide a helping hand.

“I think we’ve only got about one quarter of homeowners replacing them right now. We’ve got to provide some financial help,” David said.

On average, homeowners will pay about $3,000 to replace the pipes on their property.

Toronto Public Health offers the following tips for avoiding lead exposure on their website:

  • Use only cold water for drinking, cooking or preparing baby formula
  • Let tap water run cold to the touch before drinking it, especially if it has been standing in the pipes for a few hours
  • You can conserve water by using a pitcher to store water in your refrigerator rather than flushing each time you need drinking water
  • Other activities such as showering and flushing toilets can also minimize the need to flush taps
  • Boiling water will NOT remove lead

Homeowners concerned about lead in their water pipes can obtain a free water testing kit by calling 3-1-1.

For homes that do have lead pipes, city health officials recommended installing an end-of-tap filter.