Lead content still a problem in Brandon's drinking water, tests show
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.
"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.
Brandon lead concerns well documented
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.
"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.
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.
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.