Sunday, January 11, 2009

Getting the Lead Out

Water - it's a basic need of life. One of our major obligations as a city is to provide all citizens with clean, safe drinking water. Until we are doing that, I don't think that we can brag too much about our accomplishments.

At the last meeting of council in December, I raised again the issue of lead pipe water connections in the city. It was an issue I first raised a couple of years ago, but the only action taken since that time is to have a few homes tested, and to produce a brochure that mostly talks about how safe Prince Albert water is because of the water treatment plant (a point that I don't argue with, but which has nothing to do with lead pipe water service connections), and gives the contact information for a couple of places if you want to have your water tested. We have taken no action to inform the vast majority of the slightly more than 1,000 homes which have these connections of the risks involved and the actions that they can take, and we have not taken steps to develop a plan to, over time, replace these service connections.

These homes are, of course, in the older areas of town. Generally speaking, if your home was built before 1950, it could have lead service connections. There is also risk from lead solder on pipes inside the home, but logic tells me that water picks up more lead from sitting and then running through a one inch lead pipe than touching solder occasionally at a pipe joint.

My home is one of these homes, and I have not received any direct communication from the city telling me this, or suggesting what I can do. I know that it is a lead service connection, because I've seen it - the pipe coming out of the basement floor is greyish, about one inch in diameter. Newer connections would be copper, or possibly plastic - fairly easy to identify.

The brochure suggests running water for five minutes if it has been standing for more than 6 hours (presumably first thing in the morning, possibly also in the evening if your family is away from home all day). Tests done on homes with lead service connections in Saskatoon indicated that 10 minutes of tap running may be required to meet acceptable levels. That's a lot of water running down the drain.

Lead in water is a serious health concern, particularly for children and pregnant women or nursing mothers. Its effects are cumulative, and it can result in forgetfulness, tiredness, headaches, muscle weakness, impaired neurological development, high blood pressure, anemia...all the way to greater risk of cancer, according to information available from Health Canada. It's an invisible risk - the water doesn't look or taste bad, so there's nothing that would naturally discourage you from using it.

The report given to council stated that in the most recent testing, samples were collected from 17 homes, rather than the 30 originally identified for testing this year, and of these, 3 were identified as having excessive lead levels in the water. For these three, the city is providing tap filters to the homes. Three out of seventeen is a much higher proportion than 2 out of 50, which is the number tested after I originally raised the issue, and discussed in the brochure available on the city web-site. I think that we should be concerned.

I'm not a statistical person, so I don't know if testing 30 (or 17, or 50) of more than 1,000 potential problem sites is appropriate. I do think that the city has a couple of responsibilities here. The first is to inform people whose health may be at risk. The second is to develop a plan to replace lead service connections over time. I know that this is costly - the city manager advised that this replacement would come at a cost of $10 million. Since this is less money than we've recently chosen to invest in a recreational facility, and since it should be a program spread over several years, I think that it's quite reasonable to discuss how we can accomplish providing this basic right to our citizens during budget deliberations.

We could develop a program similar to the program developed to address flooding issues on the West Hill. In that program, the homeowner can opt to install a sump pump or backflap valve to reduce the risk of flooding to their basement. The city will give them up to $2,500 when the work is done. I think that it would be fair to provide a similar subsidy to homeowners to replace their lead service connection when planned road reconstruction is being done - this gives the city the opportunity to replace water lines and the problem connection. Building this into city maintenance and replacement plans only makes sense.

When I first raised the issue, it was suggested that I was fear-mongering. I think that there's a distinct difference between fear-mongering and informing people of potential health risks and the actions that they can take, and planning for a way to remove or reduce the risks. We talk a great deal about the importance of children to our future. Lead levels in water have the greatest affect on children. It's about time that we started to put money on improving the lives of all of our citizens, not just some.

"Not until the creation and maintenance of decent conditions of life for all people are recognized and accepted as a common obligation of all people and all countries - not until then shall we, with a certain degree of justification, be able to speak of humankind as civilized." - Albert Einstein

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