Winnipeg survey on lead levels in water needs more work, expert says

A water quality expert says the City of Winnipeg's survey on the water quality at homes with lead pipes is a great start, but more work needs to be done.

Some neighbourhoods not surveyed enough and some samples suggest 'a problem'

High lead levels in a water sample from Point Douglas, even after five minutes of flushing, concern Shirley Thompson, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba's Natural Resources Institute. (David Donnelly/CBC)

City of Winnipeg testing of water quality in homes that have lead pipes needs more work, says an associate professor at the University of Manitoba's Natural Resources Institute.

The city released data Tuesday after testing water samples gathered from 268 homes in Winnipeg that have lead pipes. Approximately 20 per cent of the samples exceeded federal guidelines for lead content.

Approximately 23,000 homes in the city have at least some lead pipes and many of those have lead service pipes from the city.

"The sample is a great start. They have identified some problems, but the next sampling should be proportional, should focus on the problem areas — the areas with lead piping in housing," said Shirley Thompson.

The city did the testing after the government of Canada changed the standards for lead content in drinking water.

The city was ordered by Manitoba's Office of Drinking Water to do the tests.

Dr. Shirley Thompson says the city's water survey needs to be expanded and more comprehensive. (Radio-Canada )

Some parts of the city weren't tested adequately, Thompson said.

"So, some areas are over-sampled, and that includes Fort Garry and River Heights. Then there are others that are under-sampled, and that includes Point Douglas, which is very problematic, because it had some of the highest levels," Thompson said.

The sample from Point Douglas is a concern because the high lead level appeared after a five-minute flush of the home's pipes, she said.

The city has recommended homeowners with lead pipes flush their lines for up to five minutes before drinking the water.

Winnipeg's water contains no lead from its source — Shoal Lake — and the city adds a chemical to the water to inhibit corrosion in lead pipes in its older service lines and in homes that still contain the pipes.

Thompson said the Point Douglas sample may indicate a problem even a long flush of the pipes can't solve.

"It was showing even after a five-minute flush, which is unheard of. It is indicating there are service line problems there, because after five minutes, it wouldn't be the household property, it would be the impact of the actual service lines," Thompson said.

"Winnipeg's drinking water is safe," said a statement from the City of Winnipeg in response to Thompson's concerns.

"The initial 200 tests were conducted on a volunteer and first come, first served basis. Samples over and above 200 were redistributed to capture the city as a whole and represent as best we could the areas with lead pipes, such as Point Douglas," a city communications person wrote.

The city spokesperson said if a home has a long service line, it may take longer than a five-minute flush to get fresh water into the home.

The city's assertion drinking water is safe is backed up by a medical officer of health from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Medical officer of health Dr. Lisa Richards says more study should be done but flushing pipes will reduce lead content to acceptable levels. (Trevor Brine CBC )

Dr. Lisa Richards said the "risk is low" for lead exposure, especially when residents follow the protocol and flush their lines for the appropriate amount of time.

Richards found it "reassuring" that most (except for Point Douglas) of the testing showed lead content decreased to acceptable levels after flushing was done.

Lead exposure can lead to serious health issues, especially in children.

"I am hopeful that we will see more data as time goes on and more sampling in areas of the city where perhaps this time round there wasn't many samples," Richards said.

The city has plans for more testing, the spokesperson said.

"Our testing plan will evolve over the years, depending on future test results, as we continue to try and capture the residences at highest risk. The next round of testing is expected to take place in spring 2020," the statement said.

The next set of tests will focus on specific areas that are at most risk, such as Point Douglas, and "testing will still be distributed across the city, as recommended by the province and national guidelines."

No thirst for subsidies

The city doesn't appear keen to offer residents incentives to remove the lead pipes from their homes or provide subsidies for filtration systems.

The city has identified 23,000 homes with lead pipes. Most of those were built before 1950 and spread through multiple neighbourhoods. (Jacques Marcoux/CBC )

CBC News asked Coun. Cindy Gilroy, the chair of the city's water and waste committee, if there was interest in providing a subsidy to swap lead pipes for copper.

Gilroy's assistant provided a statement that didn't address the question of an incentive but reiterated the city's position on how residents should keep their water lead free.

"The city has provided all homeowners with known lead pipes with information on how to reduce their lead exposure, which ranges from flushing their tap water for up to 10 minutes, to using filtration devices, to replacing their private lead pipes and connections," Gilroy's statement said.

The city says residents can purchase filter containers or whole-house filtration systems that will cut back the amount of lead in the water.

Brita (and other branded) pitchers can be used to help reduce lead exposure. Residents should look for the following:

  • Water filters with the Health Canada recommended certification label ANSI/NSF Standard No. 53 for reduction of lead (look for the blue NSF logo).
  • Distillation units.
  • Reverse osmosis units.

In 2016, the city of Brandon offered residents a one-time rebate of up to $100 on the purchase of a National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) certified water filter for lead removal.

In 2013, provincial regulators flagged high lead concentrations in Brandon's drinking water.


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