Lead Levels in Toronto Water
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Lead Levels in Toronto Water

A recent Star investigation shows Toronto water has failed 13 per cent of its lead tests—and that's a serious cause for concern.

Photo by Flickr user Steve Johnson.

On Tuesday, the Toronto Star published an investigation into the level of lead in the city’s water supply. Freedom of information requests filed by the paper revealed that 13 per cent of tests conducted over the past six years show an unacceptable level of lead.

The failure rate for lead in Toronto’s water isn’t unprecedented. While the Star reported a six-year average from 2008 to 2014 of 13 per cent, the average of failed tests from 2005 to 2010 was 12.7 per cent [PDF, p. 7]. This is by no means a new problem and should not be surprising given existing data and the ways Toronto has fallen behind on its investment in water infrastructure—but it remains a critical and concerning one.

Approximately 40,000 Toronto homes—or about four per cent of Toronto households—still rely on lead pipes for their water, and while the City has a plan [PDF] to replace them, the process is expected to take between 20 and 30 years. About 5,000 homes have their pipes replaced each year. But while the City takes care of the work on City-owned pipes, homeowners are responsible for covering the costs of pipe replacement on their own property. Those can run to $3,000, depending on the home, and the expense involved often acts as a deterrent.

But the costs of avoiding necessary upgrades can be higher. Lead is toxic, but when it’s ingested, the body responds to it as though it were calcium—so it’s not rejected. It is then delivered to vital organs, such as the liver, kidney, and brain. Because it can’t be processed, it stays lodged there, potentially stunting development and causing neurological disorders. High levels of lead can also result in stillborn births and boost the infant mortality rate.

Children—particularly those under the age of six—are the ones most vulnerable to the effects of lead. There are a number of reasons for this: they’re more likely to put things in their mouth (toys coated in lead-based paint used to be a problem), are closer to soil that contains lead, and have developing nervous systems—which makes them uniquely susceptible to its effects.

Good nutrition can prevent and treat the impacts of lead toxicity, which is part of the reason why its consequences disproportionately affect people living in poverty. Adults tend to need considerably more than trace amounts of lead to reach toxic levels; it’s mostly people who work with the material who are at risk.

Although the dangerous health effects of lead have been evident since the findings of an 1890s Australian study on lead-based paint, it took almost a century for regulation and monitoring to catch up to the science. In the meantime, lead pipes continued to be used in plumbing because of their durability and malleability—which is why they’re common in Toronto, especially in homes built before 1950.

It’s unclear whether the 13 per cent failure rate of Toronto’s tests deserves the kind of reaction Washington, D.C., earned in 2004 for its terrible lead contamination levels, which were as much as 83 times higher than the acceptable limit and spurred a Congressional investigation. After all, the magnitude of the failure rates in such tests do matter: lead levels of 60 or 70 parts per billion are obviously a different story from levels of 12 or 13 parts per billion. (Health Canada’s water standards allow for up to 10 parts per billion for lead, which is consistent with international standards: that’s also what Europe and China go by. The U.S. standard is more lax at 15 parts per billion.)

That said, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that “the best available science … shows there is no safe level of exposure to lead.”

So when Toronto talks about its infrastructure deficit, it shouldn’t be focusing just on fancy subway lines, but also on the city’s aging water system. It’s a system people tend to care about only when it fails, which is a problem—because when it comes to water, failure should not be an option.