Thousands of Montrealers warned about lead pipes in homes

The City of Montreal says about 360,000 people may have lead pipes connecting their homes to the city's water supply.

Issue mainly concerns pipes that connect homes to city's water supply

Elizabeth Christopher is buying bottled water these days after receiving a letter from the city informing her that there may be lead in her drinking water. (CBC)

When Elizabeth Christopher received a pamphlet from the city about the possibility of lead in her drinking water, she was shocked.

"I'm very concerned because I drank tap water when I was pregnant. And I've given my young daughter tap water that hasn't been filtered," she said.

Christopher is one of about 360,000 people who got a notice warning Montreal residents about possible lead pipes that connect older homes and buildings to the city's water supply. Up to 128,000 residences across Montreal could be affected.

The city says connecting pipes are on private property and therefore are the homeowner's responsibility. So residents can replace the lead pipes if they want, but they'll have to pick up the tab for it.

How to tell if you have lead pipes

Murray Borenstein, owner of Borenstein Plumbing and Heating in Lachine, says lead pipes are thicker than copper pipes.

They're also silver-coloured and make a thud when they're hit with something metal, whereas copper pipes make a clinking, tinny sound when they're struck.

The actual risk posed by lead pipes in Montreal homes is slight, according to Montreal's public health authority. (Thomas Gerbet/Radio-Canada)

The pipes are usually in the basement at the front of the house where the shut-off valve is, he said.

Borenstein said replacing those connector pipes is a pricey, laborious job that most people don't have done unless the pipe breaks.

It can cost around $2,000 to have it done, Borenstein said. That includes the cost of the new pipes, but not the price of fixing up the land that must be dug up to get to them.

The City of Montreal is aiming to replace all of the lead water pipes on public land by 2026 and says it can coordinate with homeowners to replace pipes on public land at the same time as the pipes on private land are being replaced.

A work crew excavates lead pipes in front of a home in Outremont. (Radio-Canada)

Health risks?

The city's pamphlet says letting the tap run for a few minutes should get rid of any lead, but that's not enough for Christopher. She's taking precautions such as buying bottled water.

Graham Gagnon is an expert in water treatment at Dalhousie University. He says lead accumulates in the body over time, but it's never too late to replace the pipes.

He said even small amounts of lead could harm babies and young children. He recommends those worried about the pipes make baby formula and food using bottled water or water that has been through a filtration system. Boiling water doesn't get rid of lead, he said.

with files from Shaun Malley