Water experts meet over lead
By Johnathan Sher
Published in the London Free Press on May 18, 2007
Concerned Ontario officials met yesterday with experts trying to figure out what about London's water has caused perhaps 3,000 older homes to have elevated levels of lead.
"Londoners want to hear what steps can be taken and can be taken quickly," said Jim Smith, Ontario's chief drinking water inspector.
With more than 1,400 tests of tap water in London, 23 per cent of older homes have had lead levels that exceeded the provincial standard of 10 micrograms per litre.
Ontario's Environment Ministry has hired four experts, including one from Montreal and one from the U.S., who met with the ministry's drinking water advisory council and London officials.
Environment Minister Loren Broten wasn't among the 20 people at the meeting, in Toronto's Delta Chelsea hotel.
Jim Reffle was one of two people representing the Middlesex-London Health Unit. Last night, he said he and a city water expert answered several questions for the advisory council, which is examining several options.
A provincewide edict making lead testing mandatory -- as opposed to the province's ongoing "recommendation" -- was definitely not ruled out, Reffle said.
"The city is going to look at next steps," Reffle said, adding the health unit will be "reinforcing the message from early last week" directed at pregnant women and parents with young children.
Samples from London's water are being analysed for clues that may help the experts understand what's causing lead to leach from pipes and fixtures.
"It's complex," Smith said of the scientific work.
One question is whether the way the way London water is treated between the Great Lakes and the tap is making it overly corrosive.
"Is London altering the water chemistry?" Smith said.
London's water is drawn from Lakes Huron and Erie.
There may be other Ontario cities with elevated lead levels in tap water. More tests are planned in Sarnia after two of 14 homes failed to meet standards and another four were high enough to warrant further monitoring.
About 4,700 Londoners have requested water tests offered by city hall since The Free Press reported a month ago that 35 of 82 older homes sampled by the city had failed to meet health standards.
Since then, health officials have recommended not giving unfiltered and untested water from homes with lead-pipe services to pregnant women and children younger than age six.
The Free Press coverage also prompted Smith to send his own inspectors to conduct tests, and later to ask cities and towns across Ontario to test tap water in homes with lead pipes, a practice never before required in Canada.
Low levels of lead in blood have been linked to a small loss in intelligence.
London city staff are going door-to-door in neighbourhoods where houses are likely serviced by lead pipes -- about 13,000 homes built before 1952.
The city has also hired a consultant to analyse the chemistry of its water and see if it's causing lead to leach from pipes.
LEAD: HEALTH EFFECTS
- No level of lead in blood is safe, so any exposure creates adverse effects. Most people suffer effects that are subtle, typically a small loss in IQ.
- Children and fetuses are most vulnerable. Their bodies absorb as much as 50 per cent of the lead they ingest, five times as much as adults.
- Lead exposure can damage the central nervous system, kidneys and reproductive system, stunt physical development and likely causes cancer.
- Some water filters reduce lead by more than 90 per cent. Look on packaging for the designation NSF-53, NSF-58 or NSF-62 and that specifically states lead reduction.
- Sometimes, enough lead can be flushed out of pipes to bring levels within standards. Before using water for drinking or cooking, run a high-volume tap, such as a shower, cold for at least five minutes. Then run the kitchen tap cold for one or two more minutes.
- Boiling water doesn't eliminate lead; it only concentrates it as water evaporates.
TESTING FOR LEAD
- The city tests water for free at homes that may be serviced by lead pipes, typically those built before 1952. Tests can be arranged by calling (519) 661-4739 during business hours.
- With many requests for tests, city staff aren't scheduling tests for each home, instead going door-to-door in older neighbourhoods.