What are the potential risks of prolonged exposure to lead in your water?

A Saskatchewan health expert talks about how health can be affected by long-term exposure to lead.

Recent nation-wide journalism investigation put tainted tap water on display

Dr. Simon Kapaj recommends that anyone concerned about the levels of lead in their water get checked out by a medical professional. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images)

Prolonged exposure to lead can create adverse health complications, said Dr. Simon Kapaj, who is a medical health officer for the Saskatchewan Health Authority. 

Lead-tainted tap water in Regina, Moose Jaw and Saskatoon made headlines after an investigation led by Concordia University's Institute for Investigative Journalism was published Monday. 

The report examined 2,600 tap water samples from the three cities and found they had some of the highest measured levels in Canada.

Kapaj said pregnant women and children under six are most at-risk. People typically excrete about half of the lead absorbed through their kidneys or intestines. However, children's organs are still developing so lead could build up in the blood or soft tissue.  

"Lead exposure in children could lead to adverse effects like neural behavioural issues, learning disabilities," he said. 

Adults are not immune. Kapaj said they could experience kidney and liver dysfunction, as well as neurological effects. 

People who believe they have been drinking lead can seek out medical testing, he said. ​​He encouraged affected people to flush their lines and use approved filters. 

He said replacement of the lead pipes and service connections is the best strategy considering public health, but increasing awareness is a good step forward. ​

Kapaj noted that while lead poisoning is rare in Canada, "there are no safe lead levels."

Regina to accelerate replacement program 

Saskatchewan's urban problems don't stem from the water source. They are caused by individual pipes in the home and by city-owned lead service connections. 

Kapaj said public health leaders in the province are working with municipalities to make sure lead service connection replacement programs are accelerated. 

Health Canada guidelines say 0.005 mg/L in an appropriate amount, but some residents have tested several times higher. People have also expressed frustration with the City of Regina for the rate

What to do if you think you are affected 

Regina residents who are concerned they might have high lead levels can contact the city, which offers free testing to people who live in buildings built pre-1960. 

The city provides filters approved to handle lead for up to one year. After that, home owners are responsible for purchasing their own filters while they wait. 

The city also advises people run their taps before consuming water and that they use cold water, as hot water can increase lead leaching. 

The onus is on property owners to replace their private lead lines. In fact, the city will not change a lead service connection line until the private connections are changed first.

The city provides information about how to identify whether a service connection is lead on its website.  

There are about 3,600 city-owned lead service connections that need to be replaced, and at the current pace of the city it will take 20 to 25 years to finish the work. Saskatoon is set to replace all of its connections by 2026.

Some residents who have replaced their private lines are frustrated by the city's pace. Regina officials have said they will look at accelerating the replacement program. 

with files from Alexis Lalemant


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