Hundreds of thousands of Canadians have been unwittingly exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water, according to an investigation that tested drinking water in hundreds of homes.
Some areas showed lead levels “similar” to those in the US city of Flint, Michigan, during its 2015 water crisis.
Out of 12,000 samples taken from 2014 to 2018, one third exceeded the national safety guideline of 5 parts per billion (ppb).
Residents in some homes in Montreal and Regina, in the western prairies, the capital of the prairie province of Saskatchewan, and the city of Prince Rupert, in northern British Columbia are among those drinking and cooking with tap water with lead levels that exceed Canada’s federal guidelines.
The investigation found some schools and daycare centers had lead levels so high that researchers noted it could harm children’s health.
“Because there is no federal oversight, everybody does what they want,” said engineering professor Michèle Prévost, who quit working on a government study of school drinking water in frustration over the lack of lead testing. “Most provinces ignore this very serious problem.”
Canada has the third-largest per-capita fresh water reserve in the world and is one of the few developed nations not to have such a standard.
Instead, Health Canada has a recommended guideline, and it is mostly up to the provinces and municipalities to set their own regulations, the investigation revealed.
The government’s approach to limiting lead in drinking water in Canada is starkly different from the US, where the Environmental Protection Agency sets legal standards, and every person is supposed to receive an annual Consumer Confidence Report from their water provider.
There is no similar, routine testing or notice in Canada, with the exception of Ontario, which posts results online.
In Canada, where lawsuits are less frequent and provinces – not the federal government – set water safety rules, the main source of lead in drinking water is antiquated pipes.
At one government hearing, an expert estimated some 500,000 lead service lines are still delivering water to people in the country.
Lead contamination has been linked with low IQ in children, hypertension and heart disease.