I've always felt uneasy about the web of piping under my home and the stream of water that runs through it. But it's not just my house. I don't trust the water at your place either. Don't worry it's not you. It's the lead.
We all breathed a sigh of relief when Toronto passed preliminary provincial lead tests earlier this summer only two of the 20 T.O. homes sampled had worrisome levels of the IQ-killer. But I couldn't drink without more answers. Were the results truly reliable, or was it all just a political wash? First things first: I needed to get tested.
Living in a creaky old Riverdale rental, I figure the odds of swallowing lead with every gulp are pretty high. When the official city tester arrives on a Saturday three weeks after I first made my request, she turns on my kitchen tap, asks for a magnet, then heads downstairs to check my pipes. The fridge magnet sticks. Kind of. No lead there, she declares.
Back upstairs, my tap has been running nearly five minutes by the time she takes her sample. Why, I ask, can't you test it at first flush? "We just follow what Toronto Public Health and Toronto Water tell us to do."
But five minutes? There's the problem. Ask around and you'll find few who run their taps longer than 15 seconds before they shove a glass under the stream. If five-minute flushes in the morning and after work should be the norm, why, two months into a province-wide lead scare, isn't the city advertising this fact far and wide?
Toronto Public Health has yet to move on this, saying it's waiting for cues from the province. But Howard Shapiro, Toronto Public Health's associate medical officer of health, admits that getting Torontonians to blast their taps does create a bit of a conflict with Mother Nature. "Using a lot of water creates problems in terms of energy expenditure and smog. One of the biggest areas of local air pollution is the pumping of water." Say what?
Turns out pumping and purifying all that drinking water creates a $30 million hydro bill, sucking up a whopping 365,000 kWh a year of power. Is the city really going to advise us to run our taps for five minutes when it's also running radio ads telling us not to water our lawns?
The more nuanced TPH message of "shower and brush your teeth before you pour yourself a glass of water in the morning" might be what they tell you when you call in, but you won't find it on a bus shelter. (And what would it say about the city's PR push on the glories of T.O. tap water?)
Can we really expect people to forgo home-brewed coffee fresh out of bed? And what about those drowsy parents mixing up baby formula in the middle of the night?
The biggest question is whether all this tap-running is actually hiding the real number of Toronto homes with lead in their morning java. NDP enviro critic Peter Tabuns thinks so.
"There are grounds to suspect that the tests for lead underestimate the extent of the problem." Right now, only 7 per cent of the 160 homes Toronto sampled separately so far this year failed to meet lead standards after five minutes of flushing. But nearly 15 per cent (or 65,000 of T.O.'s 500,000 houses) are thought to still have lead service connections. And the problem becomes much broader when you consider that hundreds of thousands of buildings in this city have copper pipes joined with lead solder. In fact, any home built before 1990 could be affected.
Both Toronto Water and Toronto Public Health reps downplay the solder problem, saying it doesn't leach as much as lead service connections. But hey, if that's the case, why did the province rush through legislation mandating that all schools and daycares built before 1990 flush their pipes daily, effective immediately? (Lead service connections are only really a problem in pre-1950 buildings.)
Kate Jordan, spokesperson for Ontario's Environment Ministry, says, "That was rushed through quickly because that's part of the population that's more at risk." How vague. What happens when those kids go home? Provincial lead regs for residences are coming soon, we're promised, but she won't comment on when they might take effect. The good news is that under the upcoming regs, Toronto will be forced to test standing water (that's been in the pipes for at least 30 minutes) instead of water that's been running five minutes.
The bad news is that there's no money allotted to help homeowners actually replace those toxic service connections, a process that can cost a few grand. And you can forget about help for anyone needing to spend $10,000 to gut their home's internal lead piping. Instead, Jordan says, the province will be handing out free advice (gee, thanks) namely, encouraging cash-strapped cities to provide instalment financing for homeowners who can't cough up the coin. That and $4 million toward water filters for poor pregnant women and children. Talk about an end-of-pipe solution.
Not that residents should assume that any old filter will lighten their lead load. The main body that certifies filters (NSF International) yanked its seal of approval from pitcher filters like Brita earlier this year after discovering that they are unable to screen out particulate lead, the tiny bits that chip from your pipes or lead solder.
I asked Lou DiGironimo
, Toronto Water's GM, whether there are any plans for mass lead minimization stuff like adjusting Toronto water's pH or alkalinity to make it less corrosive, thereby absorbing less lead along the way. So far nada, especially since it would likely cost up to $40 million.
What about switching away from chloramine, the water disinfectant and fixer we've been using for over a decade that makes our H20 even more corrosive and lead-hungry? "We'd have to consider the tradeoffs of switching to a different chlorination system. We might switch away from lead exposure and get exposed to other health risks. You have to weigh both sides." He says the city's going to focus on changing the remaining 65,000 lead connections from the street to your property line within the next nine years (28,000 have been changed since 99).
Okay, but is this fast enough?
Maybe a little lead won't kill us, but Howard Hu, chair of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, says there's no safe exposure level for lead in blood. Besides hampering your child's neurodevelopment, potentially lowering her IQ, Hu says chronic low-level exposures accelerate the aging process in adults, boosting hypertension and eroding memory.
"The reality is that whatever lead is in water is fairly avidly absorbed by the body, and it just adds to whatever lead is in your food and the air you breathe."
Speaking of exposure, after over a month of waiting, my test results came back last week. Surprise I tested negative. Why am I not relieved?