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Lead pipes still a problem in Canada

Cities, homeowners share responsibility for replacement

Lead pipes still a problem in Canada

The shocking story of lead contamination in Flint, Michigan may seem like a one-off situation that most of us living in modern housing don’t need to worry about. But after reading with horror and sadness all the coverage of how officials in Flint failed to protect thousands of mostly poor Americans, including children, from ingesting dangerous levels of lead that leached from corroded water pipes, I decided to look at the situation north of the border. (Flint is only a two-hour drive from London, ON) The conclusion? While the lead pipe problem in Canada isn’t as dire as in Flint, admittedly an extreme example, neither should we turn a blind eye to it, because thousands of Canadians (the exact number is impossible to pinpoint) may also be unknowingly drinking lead-contaminated water because they live in older homes where lead pipes and fittings were commonly installed.

According to SafePlumbing.org, nearly all homes built before the 1980s still have lead solder connecting copper pipes. Many U.S. cities have lead pipes that convey water from utilities to homes and businesses. Lead has been used for centuries in plumbing due its ability to resist pinhole leaks, its malleability and its low cost. Building materials in Canada are similar to those used in the U.S., so it’s reasonable to assume that many Canadian utility pipes and home plumbing also contains lead. The problem is, cities may not know where lead was used.

A recent article by Global News revealed that Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is not sure which homes have lead pipes out of a total of 34,000 city-owned connections. Montreal warns residents that homes built before 1970 could have lead in their pipes, and in Edmonton, about 3,400 houses are known to contain lead, according to Epcor, a utility company.

Pretty scary. The known effects of repeated lead ingestion include damage to the neurological and cardiovascular systems. Children and pregnant women are considered to be most vulnerable. In the absence of meaningful data on the locations of lead pipes, the only time they are likely to be pulled out is during capital infrastructure upgrades or if a homeowner asks the city to replace them. Toronto started testing for lead in 2007, and found it at high enough levels (10 percent over 10 millionths of a gram per litre) to warrant a lead mitigation plan. According to Global, the original strategy was to tear up all the lead pipes by 2017 but it has scaled back its pipe replacement target and is instead encouraging homeowners to replace their own lead pipes. In 2014 Toronto started using phosphate, an anti-corrosion agent, to protect residents against lead leaching.

If lead pipes are replaced, who is responsible? Any lead pipes leading up to the property line will be handled by the city, while the resident is on the hook for the portion from the property line to the house. But there is a problem. Replacing lead pipes can actually increase the risk of lead exposure. Studies have shown that removing the city’s half of the lead pipes can triple the lead concentrations found in a house’s water.

Clearly, a method must be used that prevents or minimizes lead particles from being disturbed. Trenchless seems to be the obvious solution but if so, which trenchless technology works best? The pipe and pipe rehab industry is known for its innovation, so I’m putting out a challenge: How can we tackle this problem of lead pipe replacement and make it safer for homeowners? Let me know what you think, or post a comment on Twitter @CUI_News.

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