That, in the opinion of the House: (a) the government should address the growing concerns of lead pipes and water quality in private residences across Canada by working with the provincial and territorial governments, Federation of Canadian Municipalities, as well as Indigenous partners, to advocate and establish possible solutions to these issues; (b) the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities should undertake a study on “The Federal Government's role in lead pipe infrastructure in Canada”; and (c) the Committee should report to the House no later than December 1, 2017.
Mr. Speaker, it is my honour today to speak to the House about my motion requesting the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities to undertake a study on the federal government's role in addressing the growing concern of lead pipes and water quality across Canada.
First, I want to recognize my fellow colleagues who supported this motion and have contributed to ongoing discussions regarding lead in drinking water. I have had the pleasure of speaking with members of Parliament across party lines and heard their statements of support and encouragement. It is my hope that these conversations will be taken back to their ridings to spread awareness of the issue and that they speak with their municipalities about solutions.
Lead is often considered a problem of the past. However, the recent state of emergency in Flint, Michigan has brought the issue back into the limelight and reinforced the terrible truth about lead in the human body, that there is no acceptable safe level.
When Flint made the switch from Lake Huron to the Flint River as its direct water source, it did not address the different chemistry of the source water. It turned out to be highly corrosive in releasing the lead contained in old lead pipes into household tap water. As a result, the water began eroding the water mains. That first caused iron to leach into the water, which residents first noticed because of its cloudy orange colouration. Worst of all, half the homes in Flint still contain lead service lines, so lead was also leaching into the drinking water at highly elevated levels.
While Flint is an extreme case, the danger still exists in Canada. In fact, here are some Canadian news headlines from this year alone indicating our own issues with lead pipes and water quality.
On January 27, CTV News reported that tens of thousands of Canadians still get their drinking water from lead pipes. On January 31, the National Post's headline was “Think what’s happening with Flint’s water supply can’t happen in Canada? Think again”. On February 27, the CBC reported residents living in homes in northern B.C. might be at risk of drinking water with elevated levels of lead. On February 28, a first nations reserve in northwestern Ontario declared a state of emergency after receiving a “do not consume” water advisory from Health Canada officials. That water had higher than normal lead levels. On March 4, an Edmonton woman told CBC News that lead pipes were prevalent and that she was poisoned by her tap water. An estimated 3,500 homes in Edmonton still have lead service lines. On March 11 of this year, CBC News reported that the Village of Pemberton, B.C. had issued a warning to residents that their tap water might have high levels of lead. This news came after water testing from 20 homes found lead levels as high as six times the maximum under Canadian guidelines. On May 5, CBC News reported that more than three years after provincial regulators flagged high lead concentrations in Brandon, Manitoba's drinking water, city officials had yet to change their treatment process to reduce lead exposure for its residents. On May 20 of this year, CBC News reported that data released by the City of Toronto showed that 13% of households that submitted water samples in a voluntary lead testing program over a six-year might be exposed to dangerous levels of the element in their drinking water. On June 8, CBC News reported that Montreal's plan for removing lead lines was far behind schedule, with only 11% of buildings addressed at a halfway point on a 20-year project. On September 2, CBC News reported that 43% of drinking water fountains and taps in Surrey, B.C. schools needed flushing. The report showed that 4% of taps and drinking fountains in Surrey were not safe.
Experts agree there are well over 200,000 homes across Canada with lead service lines. The exact numbers are difficult to estimate, as many cities are unaware of the number of households containing lead service lines. Homes constructed before 1960 are more likely to contain lead pipes, and since most of our cities were well established before 1950, the potential is significant.
The Canadian guideline for the maximum allowable concentration of lead in drinking water is 0.010 milligrams per litre, or 10 parts per billion. However Health Canada, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and other toxicity experts say that no amount of lead consumption is considered safe.
Health Canada's 2013 report “Final Human Health State of the Science Report on Lead” found that although the blood-lead levels of Canadians have declined over the past 30 years, severe health effects are occurring below the current Canadian maximum allowable concentration for consumption. The study indicates, “Additional measures to further reduce lead exposure among Canadians are warranted”.
Even small amounts of lead can have negative impacts on the brain, kidneys, and bones, with an increased risk of developing kidney disease, anemia, and osteoporosis. In adults, lead exposure can also result in high blood pressure and hypertension.
However, children under the age of six, especially newborn babies, incur the highest risks, as scientific research shows lead exposure measurably lowers IQ scores and is linked to behavioural issues such as delinquency and criminality. Newborn babies are particularly at risk due to the effects of lead consumption on brain development. If lead is present in a family's home, the lead intake in drinking water accounts for 10% to 20% of the infant's intake of lead, and in the case of infants feeding on formula, the lead intake rises approximately 40% to 60%.
In most cases, parents are likely unaware lead consumption and its effects are even occurring. Blood-lead concentrations, even below current Health Canada maximum acceptable concentrations, can diminish the volume of the developing brain. Bruce Lanphear, toxicity expert and professor at Simon Fraser University, has stated the two major types of behavioural problems linked to a damaged prefrontal cortex are anti-social behaviour, which can lead to criminal activity, and attention deficit disorder.
Various provincial acts set testing standards to measure chemicals in drinking water. In Ontario, the maximum allowable concentration for lead is the same as the Canadian standard at 10 milligrams per litre. Ontario's legislation also makes it mandatory for older day care centres and schools to be tested, but unfortunately, testing legislation is not the same in every province. In May 2016, British Columbia instated annual water quality testing for schools across the province when elevated levels of lead were recently found in four schools in Prince Rupert.
Toxicity experts such as Bruce Lanphear argue Canada is still far behind the United States when it comes to tracking lead levels and legislating safe conditions. For instance, blood tests that determine lead levels in citizens are routine in the United States, but rarely used across Canada. It's worth repeating, no level is considered safe and the effects are irreversible.
Understanding this evidence, our country needs to improve its communications strategy to ensure its citizens and elected officials understand the dangers of lead exposure and are aware of the importance of solutions for eliminating lead lines and lead concentrations.
Toxicity experts recommend two solutions for reducing lead in drinking water. The first solution is to encourage home and building owners to get rid of their lead service lines. As an example of this, the City of Hamilton has a lead pipe service replacement program, which offers a low-interest loan to home and building owners for replacing their lead pipes. This started when I was a downtown city councillor, and requested that more tests be done in older, high-needs neighbourhoods.
The response I received was surprising. I was asked how much I wanted to spend because the more they test the more they would find. I replied that we should then test the blood of the children in those neighbourhoods. Over 700 children were tested, and 28% of them had higher than acceptable blood lead levels.
The next step was to make it possible for residents to affordably remove the lead service lines on their property. A special low-interest loan program was started in 2010. That has given families of modest incomes the ability to get rid of their lead service lines. Hamilton had already begun a program to remove and replace lead pipes in 1993, which was prior to the loan program. As of October this year, we have replaced over 10,000 lead lines.
The second solution to reducing lead in drinking water is to treat the water to make it as corrosion-free as possible. In December 2015, Hamilton City Council decided to implement a corrosion control program, which reduces the potential for lead release into the drinking water and will be implemented in 2018. This involves adding a corrosion inhibitor called orthophosphate to the water supply, which creates a thin film layer on the inside of pipes to stop lead from leaching.
Unfortunately, many municipalities across Canada do not have a corrosion treatment program in place. In fact, according to the “Chief Drinking Water Inspector Annual Report 2014-2015”, there were only 20 Ontario cities undergoing corrosion control strategies at that time.
Additionally, many cities do not have a city lead pipe replacement program with a low-interest loan to assist owners with the cost of replacing lead service lines on their property. The beauty of the loan investment by the city is that it is constantly being replenished as payments are made so that new applications are continually improved, with the potential that eventually all lines could be replaced.
My hoped-for outcome of this motion, if passed, is that the committee study will bring forward concrete recommendations as to how the federal government can play a key role in guidance and advocacy for removing lead pipes and lead traces from drinking water. For instance, the committee could look at the federal government's role as an advisory body over eradication efforts for lead in drinking water.
From my research and discussions with experts, I believe eradicating lead from Canadian drinking water begins with a proactive approach to municipal lead service replacement programs. These programs could benefit from an inventory of lead service lines, annual replacement goals, and information briefings for residents.
Following pipe replacement initiatives, strengthening corrosion control treatments is another key factor for removing the presence of lead in our drinking water. These treatments should be reassessed regularly to determine if new scientific or environmental information warrants any changes or adjustments.
The committee could also review the possibility of the federal government's role in a public education mandate regarding lead toxicity. A public education mandate with specific outreach initiatives would be of great benefit, especially to neighbourhoods with older infrastructure and communities with young families.
I have engaged with water quality stakeholders, leading North American toxicity experts, and local residents, and have received very positive feedback on my motion.
My office is in the process of setting up additional meetings with key stakeholders, including first nations and indigenous organizations.
If Motion No. 69 goes to committee for study, members can hear directly from experts and stakeholders regarding lead pipes and water quality, and I will certainly pass along my recommendations for witnesses who can speak to these concerns.
Given the very positive conversations I have had with the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities and his office, I would be open to a friendly amendment to the motion to move the committee study ahead of the federal government's required actions.
Before closing, I want to highlight, again, three very important points that I hope members will take away today.
First, no amount of lead is considered safe and therefore our Canadian, provincial, and territorial standards for maximum allowable concentrations of lead should perhaps be reconsidered.
Second, many municipalities may not have an up-to-date inventory of lead service lines and pipe locations, and some municipalities are not effectively providing all solutions for lead reduction.
Finally, we need to increase public awareness about the adverse health effects caused by lead consumption.
Lead pipes were well-recognized as a cause of lead poisoning by the late 1800s in the United States and by the 1920s, many cities and towns were already prohibiting or restricting their use. However, the lead industry aggressively combatted this trend through various advertising and lobbying campaigns, which meant that some communities were still allowing lead installations as late as the 1980s.
We can no longer take a reactive approach to combatting lead pipes and drinking water situations. The time has come for the federal government to work together with its provincial, territorial, municipal, and indigenous partners to create a unified cross-country solution to eradicate these issues.
I hope I can count on the support of all my colleagues support.