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Timeline to replace Quebec’s lead pipes puts children at risk, critics say

Although Quebecers have the country’s highest levels of lead in their blood, placing children at risk for learning difficulties and reduced IQ, replacing outdated lead service pipes is taking way too long, say aggrieved parents.

In addition to behavioural and learning difficulties in children, lead poisoning causes kidney damage and elevated blood pressure in adults, according to Health Canada. The average blood lead level of Quebecers is 14 micrograms per litre while the national average is 11. 

Though Montreal plans on replacing all lead service piping by 2030, “When you have children now, 2030 is a long time to wait,” says Elias Dorfman, a father of three. “You can’t get that time back. We are renters so we are at the mercy of our landlord for these kinds of things.” 

Mathieu Valcke, toxicologist at the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ) and the study’s lead author, shares Dorfman’s concerns.

“Lead is a neurotoxin; there is no safe level,” he says. “Two people standing next to each other with high and low blood lead levels, you may not see a difference at all. But when you look at a large population, then the impact of lead exposure becomes detectable in terms of the number of children who would fall into a category of having learning disabilities.” And, he adds, “in the same way, the number of gifted children would be a little bit less.”

In 2019, Valcke and his team recommended Quebec policymakers address lead exposure as a key environmental-health priority in the wake of a number of investigative stories on elevated lead levels across Canada. In the same year, Health Canada halved its guidelines for lead in drinking water from 10 micrograms per litre to 5.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante stepped up the city’s efforts soon afterwards and announced $557 million dollars to eliminate lead from drinking water by 2030, adding that it is up to the homeowners to pay for the cost of pipe replacement. If homeowners do not replace their own lead service pipes, the city will do it and send them the bill, typically around $3,000.

Montreal has been struggling to solve the problem for almost 15 years. The city acknowledged on Feb. 1 that there are at least 48,000 lead pipes that still require replacement by 2030, noting that “despite the pandemic,” 3,800 replacements were done in 2020.

Residents theoretically can check on an interactive map to see if their homes have lead service pipes but many Montreal addresses are not yet available. 

Blood levels have dropped dramatically over the past several decades after lead was banned in gasoline and paint.

“These were easily targeted efforts that resulted in large decreases,” says Valcke. “Removing lead from pipes is less targeted and more expensive. The intervention will not result in those huge decreases we saw 30 or 40 years ago.”

But it must be done.

Valcke compares this to an analogy of losing weight: those first few pounds are easy – stop eating cookies before bed and the first five can quickly be shed – but those next few pounds are harder to shake off. The replacement of the lead service pipes takes time, but that leaves Quebec children at risk and parents wondering what to do in the meantime.

Quebec City, the second largest city in the province, also followed suit following the change in Health Canada’s drinking water standards. As of Feb. 1, it estimates there are still 8,000 service pipes needing replacement, with a goal to address all of them within the next 10 years. The city has offered a rebate program to help homeowners with the costs. 

Finding lead service pipes not only costs money but it also takes time to identify problem houses and replace the pipes. If the home’s service pipe is buried and a visual inspection isn’t possible, the home’s drinking water needs to be tested for lead. If there is an issue, a licensed contractor then needs to extract the pipe, often requiring excavation, to replace it with piping that meets modern code standards.  

In the meantime, Montreal is offering residents advice on protecting themselves: 

  1. Let the water run for a few minutes before using it. This will flush out the water that has been sitting in the service pipes and provide fresh water from the municipal water source. 
  2. Use this fresh water to fill up a water jug for use during the day. This will be more convenient than always having to flush your taps. Use this water to drink and cook with. 
  3. Women who are pregnant or parents with babies or young children may choose to be even more cautious by using an NSF-certified filter on their tap or water pitcher or by using bottled water for all drinking water and infant formula. 

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Paleah Moher

Contributor

Paleah Moher is a toxicologist and environmental health scientist.