Madam Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to rise today to speak to this important motion. It is obvious but nonetheless worth repeating that water is a vital resource. It is vital to human health, it is vital to the environment as it infuses our ecosystems, and it is vital to our economy, not just to agriculture and aquaculture in obvious industries that would use water, but also to industries like pharmaceuticals and computers. Just ask someone from the computer industry how much water it takes to clean computer chips to make sure that they absolutely pristine.
Water is also a very complex issue from the point of view of creating an integrated approach to the resource, or a national water policy vision.
In other words, it is extremely complicated to create an integrated approach to the issue of freshwater, whether it be in Canada or elsewhere. There are many reasons for that. First, There is a multiplicity of issues surrounding water, and water is governed by more than one jurisdiction.
There are a multiplicity of issues surrounding water. Water is governed by more than one jurisdiction, by a multiplicity of jurisdictions. The challenge is, how do we focus public and political interest on such a big issue that calls for a broad, visionary, and systematic policy approach? The answer is to shine the light on water at every opportunity, namely when specific water incidents arise, such as Walkerton, which would be one example, boil water advisories in first nations communities, sewage overflows during rainstorms, or controlled sewage releases.
We have to use these opportunities not only to solve what are serious matters in a timely fashion but use these incidents to channel public concern about water to governments. These issues, in addition to being matters that require immediate government attention, are doorways for the public into the multiple facets of water policy.
The political ground is fertile for engaging Canadians on the issue of water. Canadians already rank water as a top priority. The Royal Bank of Canada water attitudes survey finds consistently that water ranks number two as a concern for Canadians, after health care. There is clearly an interest. The question becomes how to channel this interest to very specific water issues. The more, the better, because the more the public becomes interested in an array of water issues, the greater the chance that governments will act in an integrated, broad-based fashion to advance the water agenda.
I congratulate the member for Hamilton East—Stoney Creek for putting the spotlight on one particular issue, the very important issue of lead in drinking water, and in the process putting a focus on drinking water in general, and therefore on water itself in general.
Lead drinking water pipes are one pathway for lead to enter the human body. As we know, lead gasoline was another. Fortunately, we have addressed that problem. Lead in paint was another conduit, and that has been been addressed fairly significantly, as far as I know. Lead in jewellery is another way lead can contaminate the human body. Of course, dust from smelters in areas that have smelters that emit emissions that have lead in them is another way.
One of the most recent flashpoints that underscores the need for a strong focus on water is what happened in Flint, Michigan. Flint also highlights a dimension that needs to be taken into account whenever we make policy decisions about water, or quite frankly any policy decision; that is, the socio-economic dimension. In this case, we are talking about the question of environmental justice.
In other words, the question that poses itself is this. Are decisions or a given decision likely to negatively affect disadvantaged socio-economic groups more than other groups in society? To quote from a U.S. EPA white paper dated October 2016 on revising the agency's lead and copper rule:
Because of disparities in the quality of housing, community economic status, and access to medical care, lead in drinking water (and other media) disproportionately affects lower-income people. In addition, lead has disproportionate health effects on infants and children. In revising the LCR, EPA seeks to address environmental justice concerns and to prioritize protection of infants and children who are most vulnerable to the most harmful effects of lead exposure.
In Flint, 42% of residents live below the poverty line. It is a stunning figure. To reduce the water-fund deficit, the city switched water sources in 2014. It was getting its water from Detroit, but that proved to be too expensive so it had the intention of connecting a water line from Flint to Lake Huron whereby it could access drinking water more cheaply. In the meantime, it had a two-year period in which it needed another source of drinking water other than the Detroit drinking water system. Therefore the town turned to the Flint River for its drinking water for, as I mentioned, this two-year period. Flint River water was of poor quality, among other things due to earlier industrial pollution. It was 19 times more corrosive than Detroit water. The water therefore corroded the aging lead pipes of Flint's drinking water distribution system, and we know what the results were: a drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Just to give an example, one home, the home of Lee Anne Walters, mother of four, had 104 parts per billion of lead content in that home's drinking water as compared to the EPA limit of 15 parts per billion.
Fortunately, our Liberal government has made a major financial commitment to upgrading and modernizing our infrastructure, including our water infrastructure. We will thus hopefully not be plagued by problems like those in Flint. In fact, this can be called Canada's infrastructure moment. The 2016 budget made a 10-year, $120-billion commitment to Canada's municipal infrastructure, in two phases. The first phase includes $2 billion for rehabilitating and modernizing water infrastructure. Then in the fall 2016 economic update, the Minister of Finance increased that commitment by $80 billion over 11 years, beginning in 2017 and 2018. This will be a further opportunity to address aging infrastructure, including old lead pipes in municipal water distribution systems.
Health Canada, for its part, is taking the initiative on lead in drinking water. A consultation has been launched by the federal-provincial-territorial committee on drinking water, and this consultation is open until March 15. It aims to set a new limit for the maximum acceptable concentration of lead in drinking water. The existing limit was set a quarter of a century ago in 1992. Health Canada's consultation document proposes a limit of five parts per billion, citing the impact of lead on IQ, especially in children.
It should be noted that no threshold can be identified below which lead is no longer associated with neuro-developmental effects. The U.S. limit is 15 parts per billion and the World Health Organization's limit is 10 parts per billion. Different limits are the product of different assumptions about consumption rates, body weights, and so on. In Canada, we are aiming ambitiously at lowering the maximum acceptable limit to five parts per billion. While Health Canada is working on the question of maximum allowable concentrations, we need to examine the issue from the point of view of controlling lead in drinking water, which is fundamentally an infrastructure issue.
Lead in drinking water serves to highlight the interdependent, interdepartmental, and interjurisdictional challenge surrounding water policy in our country. We need, at minimum, a two-track approach to this problem. The best permanent approach to getting lead out of drinking water—