Hundreds of Calgary homes may have water contaminated with lead

A Calgary mom was unnerved to find out she and her two young children may have been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water at their home for the past year — and hundreds of other Calgarians are in the same boat.

City of Calgary has identified at least 550 homes connected to lead pipes

City officials will prepare a report on the accelerated removal of lead water pipes in Calgary. (CBC)

UPDATE - June 20, 6:07 p.m.
Since this article was published,  the City of Calgary has contacted Novotny to move up her water testing date and drop off a filter. The original story appears below.

A Calgary mom was unnerved to find out she and her two young children may have been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water at their home for the past year — and hundreds of other Calgarians are in the same boat.

Rikia Novotny received a letter from the city at the start of June as part of its annual water testing program, informing her that her northwest Calgary home may be connected to a city water system with lead pipes. 

Novotny said she was told the city will test her water for free and will notify her of the results in October. And if the levels of lead in the water are higher than Health Canada guidelines, the city will help her determine next steps. 

"It's just unnerving that we've been there for a year and that we could have been drinking lead water for the last year. There's a bit of a panic," she said, adding the situation feels out of her control because the rents the house, which is in Hillhurst.

And she's not the only one. Russ Dueck, a senior infrastructure planning engineer with water resources with the city, said there are about 550 homes in Calgary that have lead pipes on the public side. The city said the homes with lead pipes aren't confined to any particular neighbourhood in the city. 

And it's unknown how many have lead on private property.

If both the homeowner's side of the property and the side on public property have lead pipes, the city will only replace its portion if the homeowner agrees to pay for the cost to replace their side as well — which averages $10,000 to $20,000.

"It's a somewhat complicated asset issue," he said. "A lot of industry research has found that just replacing the public side can in some cases actually create a worse situation with respect to lead in the water … we don't want to make a bad situation or health situation worse."

In March, Health Canada updated its guidelines for lead in drinking water to reduce the maximum safe concentration to five parts per billion. 

According to the agency, while lead can cause cancer, the more worrying effect is its induced toxicity in the blood — which has been shown through studies to reduce IQ in children and cause adverse cognitive and behavioural effects, as well as increased blood pressure and renal disfunction in adults.

'Not an inexpensive fix'

Novotny doesn't have a car, so she's been walking to the nearest grocery store, pushing two kids in a stroller, to get water jugs. They've been going through about one-and-a-half 11-litre jugs each day, and the prospect of repeating that routine until the test results come back in October is daunting.

And even then, she doesn't know what will happen next.

"I'm sure it's not an inexpensive fix," she said.

The letter Novotny received lays out a few options for minimizing lead levels in water, like flushing pipes for a few minutes before each use and installing a NSF-53 certified water filter, which "will remove most of the lead." Unlike other water contamination issues, boiling water will not remove lead content.

We don't want to make a bad situation or health situation worse.- Russ Dueck, City of Calgary

The city provides a $100, one-time rebate to allow someone to install a water filter in their home — so Novotny's kitchen sink could be filtered, but not the bathroom sink or shower.

As for replacing the lead pipes? That's complicated.

Dueck ​​​​​said most of those homes were built between 1939 and 1947, and lead was used because of copper shortages due to Second World War efforts.

Another potential source of contamination could be the home's plumbing itself. Lead was used in some builds until plumbing codes changed in the 1980s.

Rikia Novotny says her family has been going through about one-and-a-half 11 litre jugs of water each day, that she walks to pick up from the nearest grocery store, while she waits to learn if her water is contaminated with lead. (Rikia Novotny)

If lead is found in a home, Dueck said the city will then physically verify whether the lead piping is on the public or private side. If it's just the city's side, it will get replaced, but if it's on both, then the city contacts the homeowner to see if they're willing to pay for their side's replacement.

"The city's position here would be that there needs to be some participation from the owner of that parcel to address the issue," he said. 

Novotny still doesn't know whether her landlord knew about the lead pipe situation before she moved in and she'll be waiting to see what they do based on the results of the test. 

But if there is high lead contamination, she doesn't think a single filter will cut it.

"Just for the health of my children. I think I wouldn't really be that worried if it was me, but I have an infant and we moved here when he was just two months old," she said.

With files from Maggie Macintosh


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