It looks like a case of health care via health scare in the West. Panic triggered off by relatively minor episodes is resulting in preemptive efforts on a vast scale. In Canada after the measles outbreak, it is the risk of lead contamination that is engaging the attention of the Ontario province authorities.
They have now ordered most schools in the region to flush their water pipes daily. Provocation? Water samples in many communities showed unacceptable levels of level. As many as 16 of 36 communities tested, including Toronto, Hamilton, Guelph and St. Catharines were found to be in the danger zone, so to speak.
Of 180 homes tested in Toronto since Jan. 1 - 20 under provincial orders - 14 had water with lead exceeding the recommended maximum. Environment Minister Laurel Broten immediately ordered all Ontario schools and daycares built before 1990 - when lead solder for pipes was banned - to run their taps daily for at least five minutes to remove any contaminants from pipes unused for six or more hours.
The province is also proposing that municipalities start regularly testing for lead at a specified number of taps, notify the building owners and take corrective action. Toronto has 65,000 homes connected to the city's water system via lead pipes, according to Councillor Janet Davis, who said yesterday that the city should be doing more to inform homeowners about the replacement option and perhaps develop "creative financing" to help lower-income residents do so.
Lead levels of 10 parts per billion are considered acceptable.
Of the 160 homes the city voluntarily tested, 7.5 per cent exceeded the recommended level, with all but one of the elevated readings in the teens. But those tests have also been criticized because they were done on household taps after they had run for about five minutes. One piece of advice to people concerned about lead is to flush the pipes before drinking so they are drawing on fresh water from the main.
Water taken from city hydrants all tested within acceptable levels, indicating that the lead is coming either from connecting pipes or lead solder inside the home. The city has been replacing about 3,500 lead pipes per year, at a cost of about $7 million.
Ownership of connecting lines is split between city and homeowner, as is the cost of replacing them. Homeowners can ask the city contractor to replace their portion of the line, or get their own contractor. Typically, it costs $1,000 to $2,500, depending on the length of pipe.
Davis said the city also needs to do more testing of apartments.
Lou Di Gironimo, general manager of Toronto Water, said information about lead in multi-unit buildings is hard to come by, because the city doesn't know what types of pipe the builders installed.
"If it's a newer condominium, you wouldn't be worried ... If it's an older one, you can talk to your property-management company." For now, the biggest concern is lead exposure in places populated by children and mothers-to-be, for whom it can be especially harmful.
In children under 6, it can delay physical and mental development and spark slight deficits in attention span and learning abilities. In adults, side effects include kidney problems or high blood pressure.
Previously, schools and daycares were expected to flush their pipes once weekly.
Health Minister George Smitherman noted there's a new program to help low-income pregnant women and parents in older neighbourhoods buy water filters. Those rated to an NSF 53 standard, such as some types of Brita filters, can reduce lead, Smith said. But the province came under criticism from NDP MPP Peter Tabuns (Toronto-Danforth), who said the danger of lead pipes has been well known for years.
"Frankly, they should have addressed it years ago. In 2002, Justice (Dennis) O'Connor noted in the Walkerton report (into the 2000 E.coli contamination tragedy that killed seven people) ... This is late, far too late."
Speaking to media in Mississauga, Premier Dalton McGuinty said the issue has "only surfaced lately," apparently referring to the situation in London, Ont., where high lead levels detected in April sparked an order for broader testing. Mayor David Miller was cautious about Davis's calls to accelerate the city's 15-year replacement program. He said it's impossible to replace 65,000 pipes all at once.
"I am not alarmed," Jim Smith, Ontario's chief drinking water inspector, emphasized yesterday.
"Let there be no misunderstanding: tap water in this province is among the safest in the world and today's actions will make it even safer," Smith told a Queen's Park news conference.