Manitoba·CBC Investigates

Lead content still a problem in Brandon's drinking water, tests show

More than three years after provincial regulators flagged high lead concentrations in Brandon's drinking water, city officials in Manitoba's second-largest city have yet to change their treatment process to reduce lead exposure for its residents, a CBC I-Team investigation has found.

Residents say lack of public awareness on potential lead traces in drinking water poses a health risk

More than three years after provincial regulators flagged high lead concentrations in Brandon's drinking water, city officials in Manitoba's second-largest city have yet to change their treatment process to reduce lead exposure for its residents, a CBC I-Team investigation has found. 2:26

More than three years after provincial regulators flagged high lead concentrations in Brandon's drinking water, city officials in Manitoba's second-largest city have yet to change their treatment process to reduce lead exposure for its residents, a CBC I-Team investigation has found.

A Brandon resident who recently drove through Flint, Michigan — currently in the throes of an unprecedented lead-related health crisis in the U.S. — was inspired to get his own tap water tested through Brandon's sampling program when he arrived home from his trip.
Steve Saul has his water tested after a road trip through Flint, Michigan. The results showed his tap water had lead concentrations three times higher than the national standard. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC News)

"My results showed they were three times the Canadian drinking water guideline for lead content," said Steve Saul.

According to Health Canada, lead concentrations should not exceed 10 parts per billion for drinking water; above that level consumption can lead to adverse health effects, such as developmental problems in children.

"All I received [from the City of Brandon] were these two sheets which were essentially technical data on the results. There were no hints of any guideline or warning that I should do anything different. It is pretty disappointing," Saul said.

He said he had to resort of researching cryptic acronyms online in order to understand what the results meant. When Saul presented the findings to his neighbours, they were all surprised.

Steve Saul`s test results were mailed to him with no context about the significance of the lead concentration. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC News)

Brandon lead concerns well documented

In 2013, the City of Brandon announced a provincial study showed higher-than-normal lead levels in a random sampling of older homes. The results showed that even after flushing pipes for five minutes, 70 per cent of samples still exceeded lead guidelines.
Patrick Pulak, director of Engineering services and Water resources for the City of Brandon says the water is safe to consume and is compliant with provincial regulations. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC News)

Shortly after, Brandon officials began subsidising water tests for concerned homeowners in older homes. To date, 17 per cent of the 313 samples exceeded lead level guidelines.

Patrick Pulak, director of Engineering Services and Water Resources for Brandon, said the city has been working on a solution for some time, but wants to get it right as they are also in the midst of securing federal and provincial funding to overhaul their existing water-treatment plant at a cost of $60 million.

"The important thing to note is that this is a lead issue, it's not an immediate concern. We're talking about long-term exposure, 50, 60 years. Certainly our intent was not to react in a knee-jerk type reaction," said Pulak.

Graham Gagnon, director for the Centre for Water Resources and Studies at Dalhousie University, remains concerned about the city's views on lead.
Dr. Graham Gagnon, director for the Centre for water resource and studies at Dalhousie University says the lead levels found in Brandon should be viewed as an acute problem. (CBC News)

"I think there's a great misunderstanding with lead," he said.

"It's not a 50- or 60-year problem, it's a maybe zero- to five-year type of problem in that lead exposure in children is a legacy that children will be burdened with all their life."

"Across Canada, we have very much a patchwork of interpretations on drinking water regulations. Interpretations on who the regulator should be, whether it's the department of health, or the department of environment, interpretations on what parameters we regulate, and interpretations on how we prioritize risks," Gagnon said.

'False sense of security'

CBC News tested 30 random samples of tap water in Brandon homes for lead in February 2016 — a time when levels are generally lower due to cold conditions — and found that 10 per cent of the samples exceeded safe lead levels, even after a five-minute flush. Of the 30 homeowners who agreed to the testing, only six recalled hearing about lead-related issues, mostly through past media coverage.

When Sue Cadman, a former health-care worker, was informed by CBC News her test results exceeded national standards, she said she was dismayed.

"Well first of all there's that false sense of security by running the water, that it's not right, so that upset me, and then I'm thinking of all the people that live in this core area, there's a lot of rentals, there's a lot of young families, and it's children that are most affected by the lead in the water," said Cadman.

Despite the all the sampling data, the city assures residents there are no water quality issues in most parts of Brandon.

"It's regulated by the province, we do strict testing of our water on a daily basis to ensure that we're meeting the standards that are set out by water stewardship and the Canadian drinking water standards," said Patrick Pulak with the City of Brandon.

There are approximately 3,600 homes built prior to 1950 that may still have lead service connections, according to the City of Brandon. However many experts say that cut-off date underestimates the true number, as lead pipes were not completely phased out in Canada until the late 1970s and lead solder has only been discontinued since the late 1980s.
Concentration of homes built before 1950 in the city of Brandon, where there is a greater likelihood of higher lead concentrations in the drinking water. (Source: Brandon tax roll data)

Brandon does not use common corrosion inhibitor

Unlike Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg, which have both been adding corrosion inhibitors called orthophosphates to its water supply to limit lead from seeping into the water for years, Brandon has only begun exploring these lead-mitigation options.

"Ultimately, we are looking at orthophosphates, we just want to be sure that we're not creating a greater problem by trying to address [the lead issue]," said Pulak.

The director of Engineering Services and Water Resources for Brandon said his team plans on conducting a pilot study this year on how orthophosphates, which have been shown to be effective in other jurisdictions, could be integrated into the overall water system.

Chris Metfcalfe, director at the Institute for Freshwater Science at Trent University thinks the sampling data should have created a greater sense of urgency for Brandon officials in 2013.

"I'm surprised that the City of Brandon hasn't moved more expeditiously to try to use that type of process in order to address these problems in their water distribution system," said Metfcalfe.

The city said it established a communication strategy to inform residents of lead mitigation measures — such as installing a filtration system or replacing lead connections to water mains — by relying primarily on media and their municipal web site.

Pulak said the city did not reach out directly to homeowners through mail outs.
Brandon`s water treatment plant. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC News)

Brandon also offers a program through which it will provide financial assistance to property owners to replace lead service lines; however, the city said few residents have taken advantage of the program. 

Retired professor of biology at Brandon University, William Paton, who has been a vocal critic of the city's water quality for years, questions Brandon's efforts to inform citizens.

"My concern is probably many of the residents are not aware. The area that is most significant is the older part of the city where there are other potential sources of lead. Many of those homes are now occupied with new immigrants from China, from South America, and I would have thought there would have been something in the water bill," said Paton.

Requests for an on-camera interview with Manitoba's Office of Drinking Water were declined and a written response to questions was not provided.

Brandon Mayor Rick Chrest's office said he was not available for comment before the publishing deadline.

With files from Holly Moore and Danielle Doiron.