Hamilton·The New Wave

Canada just cut the amount of lead allowed in water in half — here's what it means

For the first time in 27 years, Health Canada has updated its guideline for lead in drinking water — cutting the acceptable concentration of the metal in half.

Water pipe replacements can costs up to $4K

Ryan Delahunt replaces lead pipes in Fraserville, Ont. just outside of Peterborough. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

For the first time almost three decades, Health Canada has updated its guideline for lead in drinking water — cutting the acceptable concentration of the metal in half.

The decision is based on the latest science, according to the government body, which worked with the provinces and territories to reduce the maximum acceptable concentration from 0.01 mg/L, set in 1992, to 0.005 mg/L.

While lead levels across the country have dropped over the past 30 years, the metal can still leach into drinking water through pipes and other plumbing, especially in older neighbourhoods in Ontario towns and cities. That legacy means lead can still be a problem in some areas, with the onus for fixing it falling largely on homeowners.

Ryan Delahunt replaces those old pipes for a living. He works for Doyle Plumbing, Heating and Cooling in Fraserville, just outside of Peterborough, where lead pipes still pop up about twice a year.

"Most often we're replacing either galvanized or old copper water services, but we do occasional see a lead one," he said.

Delahunt showcases a piece of galvanized pipe. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Making sure a home's drinking water is lead-free is up to the owner, according to Delahunt, and replacing pipes is expensive.

"Anything beyond the curb is your responsibility as a homeowner," he explained, adding the average water replacement costs anywhere between $3,500 and $4,000.

So what should Ontario homeowners do to make sure the lead level in their water is safe?

CBC News spoke with Robert Haller, executive director of the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, to get his take on the new lead guidelines, measuring the metal and what risks homeowners run by not updating their plumbing.

What exactly do these new guidelines mean?

"It means that Canada is going to continue to have the safest water in the world. Right now our acceptable lead levels are amongst the best in the world. We've cut them in half with our new targets and that's going to put us ahead of almost the whole world."

How do the guidelines compare to other countries?

"Right now, scientifically speaking, we allow 0.01 milligrams in a litre and we're going to cut that in half to 0.005 milligrams, so it's a very tiny amount. But research has shown that there really is no safe level of lead.

We're not concerned ... that anyone is going to get immediate lead poisoning, it accumulates over time in the body and it effects mostly the very young. In pregnant mothers and those with very small children, accumulation of lead has shown an effect on neuro development, so the more we can reduce lead the better."

To learn more about lead and your drinking water, tap on the audio player below.

How do you know if your water has lead in it?

"Canada was phasing out the use of lead in the 60s, so if your home is 50 years old or more, there's a chance that the service line to your home is still lead. The water comes out of the plant lead-free and right down your street lead-free. It's when it takes the turn on the service line attaching to your home, or perhaps with the fixtures and plumbing within your home, you could have lead. So you can talk to your community, either your municipality or you local health ... and you can have a test to see if you have a concern of lead."

Let's say I do live in a community that's 50 years old or older and find out there's lead in the water — what are the next steps?

"You want to talk to your community about a long-term solution. But in the short-term, run your water in the morning so that any water that's been sitting there for a while is flushed out. Anytime you haven't used your water for a while it's always best to run the lines for 10 minutes.

There are also filters you can buy … or something that attaches to the refrigerator or the tap. That's a great plan for the short-term."

What is the penalty if those pipes aren't fixed?

"I think that's our greatest concern at the municipal level.There's no obligation at this point for the homeowner to take action. So I think there's a lot of work to be done around educating the homeowner as to the concerns of lead and perhaps making this identified in a home inspection at the time of a sale — similar to the way we need to identify asbestos or bad wiring. What would be even better to help with the costs is some type of grant or a tax rebate from the provincial or federal levels that might give incentive to the homeowners to get involved."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This story is part of The New Wave, a week-long CBC radio and online series focused on those tackling Ontario's water woes. (CBC)