Leading the charge against lead

Utilities Kingston team tests water in local houses to prevent lead from contaminating water

Phil Emon measures the pH levels of tap water in a house in the Student Ghetto as part of a City program to ensure lead levels in the water don’t exceed government regulations.
Phil Emon measures the pH levels of tap water in a house in the Student Ghetto as part of a City program to ensure lead levels in the water don’t exceed government regulations.
Using data compiled by the City of Kingston, the above shows the dates of construction for homes in the Student Ghetto. Houses buit before 1950 are more likely to have lead plumbing.
Using data compiled by the City of Kingston, the above shows the dates of construction for homes in the Student Ghetto. Houses buit before 1950 are more likely to have lead plumbing.
Photo Illustration by Justin Tang

A Utilities Kingston team is testing water in local houses to ensure no one ends up like Sir John Franklin.

In 1845, Franklin and a crew of over 100 people left the docks in England on an expedition to the Northwest Passage. They never returned.

A prominent theory suggests that lead poisoning from cans of preserved food was a major factor in the death of the crew, stranded in the Canadian Arctic.

Phil Emon, quality assurance operator with Kingston’s Water and Wastewater Operations, has tested water in around 600 homes. He said only six per cent have had high levels of lead in their water.

The maximum acceptable intake of lead concentration in water is 10 parts per billion, or 10 micrograms per litre.

“If you filled a room with one billion Styrofoam balls,” Emon said. “Ten balls would be lead.”

Until 1950, homes were built with water pipes made of lead. It wasn’t until 1989 that regulations prohibited pipes with any lead content above .2 percent.

Of the 600 houses Emon has tested, he said more than half were around the Student Ghetto. The testing program is volunteer-based, available for Kingston residents looking for peace of mind.

“We get a lot of Queen’s homes,” he said.

The provincial government introduced a new requirement to the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2007, after discovering elevated levels of lead in tap water throughout the province. Now municipalities are required to sample private residences, non-residential buildings and the City’s water distribution centre.

According to Health Canada, ingesting high amounts of lead can lead to complications with blood, kidneys and the nervous system.

Emon said because Kingston’s water-distribution system of pipes is lead-free, his main focus is the privately-owned homes, especially those built before 1950.

According to a City of Kingston Planning and Development study compiled using statistics from the 2006 Census, over 30 per cent of homes in the Student Ghetto were built before 1946.

Emon said attitudes towards water standards have changed since a contaminated water system in Walkerton, ON caused a series of deaths in 2000.

“Anytime you talk about water, because of what happened in Walkerton, there’s always a scare factor,” he said, adding that Kingston is not a high risk area for lead contamination.

“Lead exposure is much less than it used to be.”

Kingston’s Community Testing program was allowed to reduce the burden of a regular sample amount because the six per cent rate of high lead concentration was relatively low compared to other municipalities that were discovering problem cases at rates over 10 per cent.

Emon said Kingston’s natural limestone concentration is a factor in protecting residents from lead diluting and leaching into tap water.

“It’s because of where we live,” he said, adding that the calcium from the limestone coats Kingston pipes, preventing any lead present from coming in direct contact with water.

“Water quality also plays a role in how lead leaches into water,” Emon said.

Because Kingston is considered moderately hard—specifically 124 milligrams of hardness per litre, the water is less corrosive and unlikely to erode lead off pipes and into the water.

The Journal arranged for Emon to conduct a water test in a home in the Student Ghetto. Arriving at the house at 8:30 a.m. yesterday, Emon ran the kitchen tap to flush all existing water from the plumbing.

Before taking a sample from the tap or performing any tests, no one was allowed to use the water for 30 minutes—a difficult task early in the morning when showers are in high demand.

“Before [the government- sanctioned sample reduction] we were testing 200 homes every six months,” Emon said. “It takes 45 minutes per test, which gets difficult especially in the morning when people need showers and breakfast.”

During the 30-minute wait, Emon toured into the basement to inspect the pipes.

The homeowner is responsible for the section of piping leading from the property line to the house—known as the service line.

The service line usually enters the home at the front of the house. Emon concluded that the service line was made of copper.

“You can tell it’s copper by the brownish colour,” he said. “Lead would be a dull grey. It’s a soft metal so if you take a key to it, lead would scratch.”

Homeowners with lead plumbing systems and high concentrations of lead in tap water are advised to replace the service line. Although, replacement can prove costly and Emon said there are other more cost-effective methods including installing an NSF-approved filtration system or running the tap for five minutes in the morning to ensure all water sitting in the pipes is flushed. Emon cautioned against using hot water for drinking or cooking because lead dissolves in hot water faster than cold.

Property Standards Kingston make inspectors available for tenants who believe their housing isn’t meeting regulations and will issue a work order for landlords to bring their property up to code.

Though switching to bottled water appears to be easiest approach to avoiding lead, a study published by the Natural Resource Defence Council (NRDC) suggests there are also risks associated with the bottled alternative to tap water.

Bottled water is regulated by the federal government through the Food and Drug Act. Tap water is regulated Provincially, though all Canadian tap water must adhere to microbiological and chemical guidelines as well as asthetic standards including taste, odour and colour.

“Our conclusion is that there is no assurance that just because water comes out of a bottle it is any cleaner or safer than water from the tap,” read the NRDC study. “In fact, an estimated 25 per cent or more of bottled water is really just tap water in a bottle—sometimes further treated, sometimes not.”

To volunteer your home for water-testing call Utilities Kingston’s Water Quality Assurance Office at (613) 389-0562.

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