Hundreds of thousands of Canadians are consuming tap water laced with high levels of lead leaching from aging and deteriorating infrastructure.
A year-long investigation by more than 120 journalists from nine universities and 10 media organizations, including the Toronto Star and the Institute for Investigative Journalism, collected test results that properly measure exposure to lead in 11 cities across Canada. Out of 12,000 tests since 2014, one third — 33 per cent —exceeded the national safety guideline of 5 parts per billion.
Reporters also fanned out to 32 cities and towns across the country — from Victoria, B.C., to Grand Pre, N.S. — to knock on doors in neighborhoods with older homes. With the help of residents who volunteered to take part, the teams conducted 260 water tests using accepted standards and submitted samples to accredited labs. The results showed 39 per cent of samples exceeded the current federal guideline.
Experts call threats from lead exposure a simmering public health crisis. But many Canadians remain unaware of serious long-term health consequences because government oversight is often lax and secretive.
Canada is blessed with the world’s third largest renewable freshwater supply covering about 12 per cent of the country’s surface area. But while Canada may be a global water superpower with a reputation for snow-capped mountains, crystal clear lakes and free flowing rivers, lead exceedances in tap water are chronic and sometimes extreme, the investigation found.
Test results from samples taken in cities including Prince Rupert, B.C., Regina, Moose Jaw, Saskatoon and Montreal showed lead levels comparable to — and in some cases beyond — those of U.S. cities that have made international headlines for their tainted water.
“I’m surprised,” said Bruce Lanphear, a leading Canadian drinking water researcher who reviewed Canadian lead levels obtained by the investigation. “These are quite high given the kind of attention that has been given to Flint, Michigan, as having such extreme problems. Even when I compare this to some of the other hotspots in the United States, like Newark, like Pittsburgh, the levels here are quite high.”