Testing suggests 1 in 5 Winnipeg homes with lead pipes have unsafe levels of lead in drinking water

One in five Winnipeg homeowners with lead pipes will get unacceptable levels of lead in their drinking water the moment they turn on the tap, according to the City of Winnipeg.

23,000 homes in city have record of lead pipes, only 268 tested so far

There are roughly 23,000 homes in Winnipeg with lead pipes. The city recommends the people in those homes flush their plumbing system before consuming their water. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

One in five Winnipeg homeowners with lead pipes will get unacceptable levels of lead in their drinking water the moment they turn on the tap, according to the City of Winnipeg.

Under the city's lead water quality testing program, samples were taken from 268 homes with lead pipes between Aug. 15 and Nov. 19. The testing was done to ensure water quality met new national guidelines for lead in drinking water, which cut the acceptable amount of contamination in half last March.

"Overall, the results are as expected," Renee Grosselle, manager of environmental standards with the City of Winnipeg, told reporters Tuesday afternoon.

"Samples that were taken in homes with lead pipes, there were a few that did have some results over the guideline," Grosselle said, adding that the overall average amount of lead contamination was about 0.003 milligrams per litre.

Samples were tested after the water had run for one minute, two minutes and five minutes — thereby flushing the pipes — as well as random samples with no flushing.

The test found that 20 per cent of the random samples had lead levels above the national guideline of 0.005 milligrams per litre.

Twelve per cent of samples taken after flushing for one minute had more lead than is acceptable, while five per cent of samples collected after two minutes of flushing had too much lead. One sample had too much lead after five minutes of flushing.

Renee Grosselle says the water from Shoal Lake is safe. But it becomes contaminated after flowing and sitting through lead pipes. (Thomas Gerbet/Radio-Canada)

That sample came from a home in Point Douglas.

According to Grosselle, part of that may have been due to the fact that this particular home has lead pipes and is also connected to a lead city pipe. It is also possible the water had been standing for a long time, allowing it to absorb more lead from the pipes.

Everyone whose home was tested was informed of their levels within 30 days, Grosselle said.

Pipes are the problem, not water

Despite what the data shows, Grosselle said, the water is "completely safe" because there is no detectable lead in Shoal Lake (the city's main water source). The problem comes when that water travels through the pipes, she said.

Water that doesn't flow can absorb metals from the pipes, so it is suggested that people with lead pipes flush their plumbing system to let fresher water come through.

If a resident's home was built before 1950, it's possible the pipes are made of lead, Grosselle said.

A house with lead pipes likely has a pipe coming out of the ground where it links to the water main, she added.

The city recommends replacing a property's lead pipe, either at their own expense or when the city comes around for a water main replacement. But Grosselle notes that can be costly, so an alternative is to flush the water before consuming it.

Grosselle also pointed to the city's use of orthophosphate — a phosphoric acid added during the treatment process to prevent lead from entering the water through pipe corrosion — as an initiative the city has taken to reduce the impact of lead.

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 )

Eva Pip, a retired professor of 40 years who specializes in toxicology and water quality, says having lead levels above the national guidelines is very serious.

"It is a neurotoxin, so it affects the brain and central nervous system. It can cause headaches and digestive problems, long-term problems, and it can be associated with cognitive issues," said Pip.

"It is especially of concern for children," she said, whose brains are still developing.

Lead also causes an increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. If a pregnant woman is exposed to high levels of lead, it can cause a miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and/or low birth weight, according to the World Health Organization. 

The sample size of 268 homes is not large enough to capture just how widespread the problem is in Winnipeg, Pip said. But even with that small sample size, having 20 per cent of homes exceeding the national guidelines is very concerning, she added. 

While flushing your pipes may help, it might not be enough, said Pip. The only way to be completely sure your water is lead free is to replace lead pipes, but if that isn't affordable, Pip suggested buying a water filterage system. 

The lead testing happened after the city contacted the 23,000 homes in Winnipeg that the city has record of having lead pipes, in the hopes of finding volunteers to have their water tested.

It took a single day for the city to reach its limit of volunteers.

There are approximately 2,300 people on the waiting list to get tested, according to Grosselle.

The next round of lead testing is expected to begin in spring 2020.

Winnipeggers concerned about lead in their water can learn more here:

With files from Erin Brohman


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