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November 2007 - Nr. 11


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Enviro Law
Power of the Sun

Who is responsible for fixing lead-contaminated drinking water?

 Recent attention to lead-contaminated drinking water has many Ontarians questioning the safety of the water in their own homes. So, how do you know if there's lead in your drinking water? How much lead is unsafe? And, who is responsible for fixing the problem?

The most likely source of lead in drinking water is plumbing related. Lead is often found in older pipes and the solder used to join them. Homes built prior to the mid-1950s are more likely to have pipes and service lines with lead content. Homes built after the mid-1950s are less likely to have lead pipes or service lines, but there might be lead in some fixtures or solder used to connect your pipes. Changes in standards make it unlikely that homes built after 1989 have any lead in pipes, service lines, solder or joints. 

The only way to know for sure is to have your tap water tested, either through one of Ontario's licensed laboratories (see for details) or, where available, through your municipality.

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment says levels of lead above 10 micrograms per litre could be harmful, especially to children and pregnant women. Lead exposure can lead to anemia (a lack of oxygen in the blood), damage to the nervous system, impaired mental functioning and other problems.

Safe tap water and sewage disposal are two of the most fundamental services provided by municipalities to local residents, and are arguably the greatest contributors to human health and longevity of the last 150 years. During this time, standards for potable (drinking) water have become much more stringent. Today, water suppliers must provide water that is both microbiologically safe (doesn't contain dangerous bacteria), and safe in terms of chemical contamination such as lead. 

The Safe Drinking Water Act of Ontario, adopted after the Walkerton tragedy, requires all municipal-type drinking water providers, i.e. those who pipe water to the tap, to provide safe water virtually all of the time. Unlike the vendors of bottled water, municipal-type drinking water providers must test their water over and over again and report the results to both the province and residents.

But this doesn't necessarily mean that drinking water providers are responsible if lead-contaminated drinking water comes out of your tap. Municipal drinking water goes through city-owned pipes until it gets to the edge of private property; municipalities are responsible to ensure that their water is safe at that point. From the property boundary, the water travels through the property owner's plumbing. Dirty or contaminated piping in the home can mean dirty tap water, no matter how clean it is when the city delivers it.

Although the municipality is not responsible for the plumbing in individual homes and any contamination that it causes, municipalities can help by adjusting the pH [acidity and alkalinity] of their water to make it less corrosive. This can help prevent lead in the pipes from dissolving into the water. Recent directives by the Ministry of the Environment will require municipalities to do what they can in this area. Municipalities may also be willing to help arrange for the replacement of lead-contaminated pipes in your home.

To protect the most vulnerable, Ontario schools and day cares must now annually test their water for lead. Any of these facilities built before 1990 must also flush their systems daily, rather than the former weekly standard.

Other solutions include replacing lead plumbing, or installing (and regularly changing) filters. Filters can be attached to the tap (see for a list of filters that meet the National Sanitation Foundation NSF-53 standard for reducing lead) or put into the refrigerator (such as an activated charcoal filter - see Flushing the plumbing by running the tap for 5 minutes can also help when water has been sitting in the pipes for more than 6 hours.

Safe tap water is a shared responsibility between drinking water providers and property owners. If you have concerns about lead in your drinking water, contact your municipality for information on testing and whether a lead water line change-out program is available in your community.

Dianne Saxe, one of Canada's leading environmental lawyers, is a Certified Specialist in Environmental Law and member of the Ontario Bar Association Environmental Section Executive.  She also holds one of Canada's only Doctorates of Jurisprudence (PhD) in environmental law.


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