How Montreal is reducing lead exposure from water pipes, and what you can do now

The City of Montreal is going ahead with replacing old lead pipes connecting the city's water system to private residences and will give homeowners up to 15 years to pay for the work.

As many as 300,000 Montrealers may be exposed to lead contamination

Hundreds of thousands of Montrealers could be exposed to lead above recommended levels due to old water pipes still in use. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

The City of Montreal is accelerating its plan to replace lead pipes in the water system.

It's acting now, based on new recommendations from Health Canada and the results of recent studies.

Lead exposure can cause neurological and developmental problems in children, and increase blood pressure or cause kidney problems in adults.

Here's what the city is doing, and how you can limit your exposure until the pipes to your home are replaced.

Is our water safe to drink?

While Montreal's water is of excellent quality and is safe to drink, lead leaching from the old pipes that water runs through can contaminate it by the time it comes out of your tap.

Health Canada recommendations released in March reduced the acceptable level of lead from 10 micrograms per litre of water to five. Quebec adopted the same standards today.

About 300,000 Montrealers are currently exposed to lead at concentrations that exceed those recommendations, according to Montreal's regional public health agency.

How is the city going to fix this?

Since 2007, the City of Montreal has been working with Montreal's public health agency to replace lead pipes in the municipal water network.

The city has budgeted $557 million to replace more than 48,000 lead pipes by 2030.

But pipes that are privately owned — the service entrance, or the section that connects every building to the municipal water network  — are the responsibility of the building owner.

Over the next three years, the city is going to test about 100,000 homes to see if the level of lead exceeds Health Canada's recommendations. They estimate about half of them have a service entrance made of old lead piping that will need to be replaced.

Lead pipes were used up until the 1950s, so the City of Montreal is prioritizing replacing the pipes to residences built before that date. (Halifax Water)

The city has been urging building owners to replace old lead pipes for a decade. However, fewer than one in 10 homeowners have done so.

The city is now drafting a bylaw that will require owners to do that work. If they don't, the city will go ahead and do it.

They'll bill the homeowner, who will have the option to either pay in a lump sum or in installments over a maximum of 15 years.

Replacing a service entrance costs between $2,200 and $5,000.

"I'm definitely hoping that house owners and landlords will keep in mind that it's about public health," said Mayor Valérie Plante Wednesday.

Who is the priority?

Dr. Mylène Drouin, director of public health for the Montreal region, says that over the last several decades, the public's exposure to lead has been greatly diminished.

While the individual risk associated with lead exposure in Montreal is quite low, Drouin's agency says it's important to act since so many people are potentially exposed.

Lead exposure is most dangerous for infants, young children, pregnant women and the elderly.

Builders stopped installing lead pipes in the 1950s. So the city is prioritizing homes and institutions built before that date: Second World War-era housing, single family dwellings, duplexes and triplexes, along with schools and day care centres.

Chantal Morissette, who is in charge of water services for the city, said once the city decides to replace pipes in a given neighbhourhood, homeowners will be notified about three months ahead of time.

She said that it will be helpful for planning purposes if homeowners inform the city that they are going ahead with replacing the service entrance on their property on their own.

How do I know if I have lead in my water?

Montreal has also created an interactive map where residents can see whether their home is at risk of potential lead exposure.

Click on the box above in order to enable the interactive map. After you put your address in, click/tap on where your building is located to reveal the information.​

What can I do right now?

If you think your home may have old lead pipes, the city recommends you use a water filter until they are replaced.

When buying a filter, it is important to ensure it is certified NSF/ANSI 53. This certification, from the consumer product health and safety inspector NSF International, means the product meets "minimum requirements for systems designed to reduce specific health-related contaminants."

One of the water filters recommended by the City of Montreal to limit lead exposure. Filters must be certified NSF/ANSI 53 to ensure that they do in fact filter out lead. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Some filters have NSF 42 certification, which only guarantees that the product filters "aesthetic-related" contaminants.

The filters can either be attached to your faucet or be used with water jugs.

The city says NSF 53-certified filters cost about $50. Low-income residents can call 311, and the city will provide them with a filter. If testing determines that the resident is being exposed to lead, the city will cover the cost of filtration for one year.

Montreal's public health authority also recommends cleaning the aerator at the end of your faucet, using cold water for cooking and running your water for a few minutes before consuming it.

The city is recommending some residents use water filters to eliminate lead from their drinking water until their old pipes are replaced. (Charles Contant/CBC)

With files from Lauren McCallum