The water is safe. It's only dangerous when it comes out of the taps.
November 4, 2019 4:59 PM   Subscribe

A massive cross-Canada investigation has revealed multiple cities with lead levels comparable to Flint, Michigan. Given the number of people affected, there's particular concern about lead levels in Montreal tapwater. There is no known safe level of lead exposure.
posted by clawsoon (36 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
Holy shit.
posted by aramaic at 5:04 PM on November 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


(The post title, BTW, is a paraphrase of most of the official responses to this investigation.)
posted by clawsoon at 5:16 PM on November 4, 2019 [5 favorites]


Smart of the Star, the boil water advisories in First Nations for decades is an embarrassment, but maybe if white people also can’t drink their water something will be done about it.
posted by saucysault at 5:26 PM on November 4, 2019 [25 favorites]


Just plain evil.
posted by wires at 5:32 PM on November 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


the water at the house where I lived, in montreal, was tested by the city earlier this year for lead, and we found out that we had lead higher than recommended limit (tho I gathered that any amount of lead, even within the recommended limits, is potentially dangerous), and we freaked out pretty badly about it at the time, installing all sorts of filters to try to mitigate the problem. we also tried to get the landlord to replace the pipes too... not that that went anywhere.

(for unrelated reasons, I ended up moving to NYC a couple weeks ago. I still miss 'home'.)
posted by and they trembled before her fury at 5:53 PM on November 4, 2019


So .. how many of these homes and businesses are rented or leased? And how many Montreal politicians are in the rental business? Cause that's the reason for most of our shoddy buildings down here.

Just horrible.
posted by unearthed at 6:03 PM on November 4, 2019 [5 favorites]


I feel like this is the case in a LOT of post-industrial cities. Like, in the DC, USA area for example you probably shouldn't be letting your kids play in most any parks or backyards at all given the lead levels in the soil, and I doubt it's an outlier.
posted by schroedinger at 6:04 PM on November 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


One thing that comes up multiple times in the articles, which I haven't had a chance to dig into, is the corrosiveness of the water. It sounds like there's something that can be done about that at the water treatment plant, before it ever gets into the pipes, that'll lower the amount of lead that comes out of the taps even if there's lead in the pipes.
posted by clawsoon at 6:07 PM on November 4, 2019 [4 favorites]


This probably also explains why my parents would run the water so long before using it for drinking or cooking. In the tests they did, that seems to dramatically lower the amount of lead that ends up in your cup.
posted by clawsoon at 6:09 PM on November 4, 2019 [9 favorites]


So I'm trying to figure out how to get my water tested, and the Alberta Health hours for picking up sample containers and returning them are not so great. For nearby towns, they are: Monday to wednesday before noon, or just Monday from 815 to 930 am, etc.
My town has no place to do chemical testing!

(I've sent an email to the utility provider and they will almost definitely respond with information about how to arrange a test)

I've looked at a few kits to test for lead, and am discouraged at the reviews.

What an unexpected source of stress!
posted by Acari at 6:15 PM on November 4, 2019


I know we don’t have lead pipes in the house, I know our water in is copper and the city just redid the water line for the street 2 years ago... so are we in the clear? Or are there bigger distribution lines that can be lead and an issue? I also live in one of the bluest areas on the Mtl map... but I don’t know if it’s distribution network or just because it’s an old neighborhood with old houses and lots water in made of lead.
posted by WaterAndPixels at 6:21 PM on November 4, 2019


I was talking about this recently, and I realized I spent a solid chunk of my teen years assembling and painting lead figurines. No gloves, fingers often stained from contact with the lead. I started wondering just how much that’s affected me, and that scares the living fuck out of me.

And that was just a hobby. Not daily exposure to lead in water and ground soil. This sort of thing should be a national (international) emergency, with people working hard to prevent further damage, but it’s not white people, so Flint is left to die, and similar reports were probably shelved or buried to prevent people knowing how bad the water is in other post industrial towns.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:45 PM on November 4, 2019 [5 favorites]


>Smart of the Star, the boil water advisories in First Nations for decades is an embarrassment, but maybe if white people also can’t drink their water something will be done about it.

Less than two months ago a Global reporter questioned Jagmeet Singh's commitment to Clean water for indigenous communities as a "blank check" and a "lot of money." Jagmeet immediately handed the reporter his ass.
posted by Karaage at 6:48 PM on November 4, 2019 [26 favorites]


Lead figures, lead fishing sinkers, lead solder, lead gas, lead paint...I wonder what my capacity might have been.
posted by j_curiouser at 6:55 PM on November 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


I'm an emergency physician/medical toxicologist. Having spent most of my career in inner city municipal hospitals, I have a fair amount of experience with plumbism and wanted to chime in with some practical advice about testing and filters

TESTING:

Home lead-testing kits are inexpensive (the one I used in my house cost $18) and commonly available at any Home Depot, Lowe's, etc


FILTERS:

I have no idea how many different lead filters there are on the market, but there's a lot and they range in price from $50 to a $1,000 or more.

Presumably higher cost = better filtration, though I wouldn't shop solely on the basis of price. Instead, shop on the basis of certification(s) and compliance with EPA (or Canada's equivalent agency) standards.

1) Look for filters certified by either the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) or the Water Quality Association (WQA) . There are other certifying agencies, but these two are the gold standard.

2) Look for those that say they meet Standard 53, for lead.

3) If it were me, this is where I'd start.
posted by BadgerDoctor at 6:59 PM on November 4, 2019 [39 favorites]


I've lived in Montreal for the past five years, and I'm kind of freaking out about this. For two years, I lived in a place that was built in 1938. My current place, which I've also spent two years in, was built in the late 60's to mid 70's. According to the Global News map, my postal code has a median of 5 ppb, which is pretty concerning. I also have a habit of drinking a hell of a lot of tapwater, especially at my current place.

Is it guaranteed that I've been thoroughly affected by this point? How could I even tell? Is it even good to know/find out, given that it's not something I can retroactively change? I don't want to do any Googling on that front, because I have OCD and I know I'll fall into a hole and never forget/obsess about it every day if it sounds bad.
posted by constantinescharity at 7:42 PM on November 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


If I had a kid and found there was lead in the water, I would grab my child, get in the car, and go.
posted by xammerboy at 8:32 PM on November 4, 2019


> The water is safe. It's only dangerous when it comes out of the taps.

Probably everyone here knows this, but it is worth pointing out that this is one of the very most basic known facts about lead contamination. And the fact that some public figure is saying this as some kind of a defense shows just how dumb and/or corrupt they are.

No water should ever go out of a public water system's processing facility with lead in it. It is pretty easy to test & deal with at that point, if that ever should happen. But it is only about 0.01% of the problem.

Because of our last 100-200 years of history there is in fact lead in various pipes along the way. Most often the lead pipes have a layer of corrosion that protects the lead in the pipe from leaching into the water.

That is why the real test for lead is not at the water company plant, it is at a random sampling of water customer's homes, as it comes out of their tap.

There is a whole very specific protocol for doing this testing properly and if the water company previous had "no idea" of lead in customer's water that is prima facie evidence they were deliberately mismanaging their water tests. (And if the lead test--then what others in addition?)

The fact that the water has no lead as it leaves that water company's tanks means literally nothing.

Also it is very well known and everyday common knowledge among people who run water systems that if the water becomes more corrosive etc then it can eat away the protective layer of corrosion on lead pipes and cause dramatically higher amounts of lead in drinking water.

Not at the water company's headquarters but coming out of people's faucets where it actually counts.

That is exactly what happened at Flint.

Anyone having anything to do with running a water company who pretends not to know and thoroughly understand this should, honestly, be strung up from the nearest tree instantly by mobs of angry peasants.
posted by flug at 8:40 PM on November 4, 2019 [21 favorites]


This probably also explains why my parents would run the water so long before using it for drinking or cooking.

I forgot about this until right now but at my elementary school in Surrey BC, built in the 1920s and which I attended in the mid-80s to early 90s, we were instructed to run the drinking fountains for 30 seconds before we drank, presumably due to lead.
posted by urbanlenny at 8:41 PM on November 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


Our parents were exposed to much higher levels of lead and look how they turned out.

Oh shit.
posted by benzenedream at 9:01 PM on November 4, 2019 [18 favorites]


If I had a kid and found there was lead in the water, I would grab my child, get in the car, and go

Oh yeah? Where would you go? There is lead in the soil abd water all over due to decades of leaded fuel, pipes and paint. There is mercury too, everywhere. No place without it. And microplastics and PTFE and C-6 and dioxins and god knows what else.

You cant run away from this.
posted by fshgrl at 10:33 PM on November 4, 2019 [14 favorites]


If I had a kid and found there was lead in the water, I would grab my child, get in the car, and go.

I get this, I really do. I understand the idea that nothing should take precedence over the health and safety of your child, and that a parent should feel like they’d do anything for them.

The problem is that this sort of statement implies confusion that there are people who haven’t done this, or won’t do this, for any reason, and that, since the person making the comment has said they would abandon everything they have to protect their child... There’s an implication, intentional or not, that the people who haven’t left Flint, or whenever, that they just don’t love their kids enough to pick up and leave town.

Flint is an incredibly poor city. It’s where my mother is from, and I’ve been watching it die my whole life, through the news, through Roger And Me, through hearing from my mother’s family. The thing I’d love to impress on people who just say, why not move, why don’t you care enough about your children, is that (with obvious exceptions for shitty abusive parents) loving your children is the standard. Sacrifice for your children is the standard. But for a lot of people living in Flint, and other places people say “why not just leave” about, leaving isn’t an option. There’s no money for it. There’s no savings, no cushion to live off of while finding work and housing in a new city. There’s no money to pay to move, maybe no car, no money to pay for a bus. These are people who love their children every bit as much as the people who say “I’d just grab my child and leave town,” but they also know that as much as they love their child, they can’t do that, that it’s simply not possible. It’s easy to say just leave. It’s impossibly harder to understand that yes, it would be for the best, but that you know you can’t, and that your child, who you love, will suffer because you couldn’t take them away.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:09 AM on November 5, 2019 [46 favorites]


We got a house with lead supply line (I did an AskMe! I didn't take anyone's advice or follow through with what I said I'd do!). To their credit, the municipality was/is pretty transparent about the situation, which y'know, is the bare freaking minimum, and provided testing (Though they also recommended the 'Let the tap run a while before taking the sample because you don't want the realityskewed results' bullshit as Toronto), but their utter disinterest and disorganization in providing resources to correct the situation was really discouraging (In one year we received two different lists of companies authorized to do the work, one was a scan of a Post-It that looked like it was written by a four year old, differing descriptions of how the process works from the people in the same department, etc.).

Since then we've just done basic mitigation practices since then like using bottled water for potable/cooking - cities should provide a subsidy for at least low-income families to buy safe water if the infrastructure cannot provide it - and flushing the toilet to clear the sitting water in the supply line before doing dishes.

Smart of the Star, the boil water advisories in First Nations for decades is an embarrassment, but maybe if white people also can’t drink their water something will be done about it.

Maybe it's cynical, but to my mind it seems more likely this is motivated by people paying on average a shade under half a million on a house and then finding out they can't drink the water, though I sort of thought this was widely known/accepted; I remember when I was doing research it was common enough that at least one city in Ontario allowed homeowners who wanted to replace the supply but couldn't swing the cost to have it amortized on their waterbill, which seems eminently sensible.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 12:41 AM on November 5, 2019 [3 favorites]


in the DC, USA area for example you probably shouldn't be letting your kids play in most any parks or backyards at all given the lead levels in the soil

That's laying it on a little thick, but this is a non-negligible concern in any city with cars and construction. It's worse where they ran the freeway through or over the city back in the leaded gas days.

But really lead in the drinking water is a much more immediate health risk. As is all the localized heavy particulate from car emissions, which is causing ongoing health crises world wide, and getting wildly underreported.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:57 AM on November 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


It's almost darkly humorous how "we" (humans in general) both become incredibly frightened by the possibility of lead poisoning and are simultaneously incredibly blase about it.

And yes, it is good practice to let the tap run for a few seconds before filling a glass or a pot. Lead is by no means the only (or even the worst, aside from excessively high overall intake) heavy metal that can cause us harm and is often found in drinking water.
posted by wierdo at 5:01 AM on November 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


> I was talking about this recently, and I realized I spent a solid chunk of my teen years assembling and painting lead figurines. No gloves, fingers often stained from contact with the lead. I started wondering just how much that’s affected me, and that scares the living fuck out of me.

The skin is a very inefficient means to get lead poisoning. The respiratory and digestive tracts are far more vulnerable. As long as you didn't expose open wounds, weren't licking your fingers, and washed your hands thoroughly after every painting session, you're probably fine.

Similarly, using lead solder doesn't meaningfully elevate your risk of lead exposure. You should have thorough ventilation or a good fume hood when you use it, but that's because of the flux more than the metal. (Lead solder isn't great when considered in the greater scope of things, but exposure at the workbench is the least of its problems.)
posted by ardgedee at 5:53 AM on November 5, 2019 [4 favorites]


One thing that comes up multiple times in the articles, which I haven't had a chance to dig into, is the corrosiveness of the water. It sounds like there's something that can be done about that at the water treatment plant, before it ever gets into the pipes, that'll lower the amount of lead that comes out of the taps even if there's lead in the pipes.

There is - this is what happened in Flint. It wasn't a problem until they switched water sources.

I know our water in is copper and the city just redid the water line for the street 2 years ago... so are we in the clear?


Maybe, but lead was allowed in copper plumbing in the US until 2014 (!).

The insidious thing about lead poising is that there are no acute or obvious signs or symptoms. It can manifest years or decades later, as anything from ADHD to diabetes. It is a major social determinant of a whole bunch of health conditions that poor people tend to suffer in greater numbers from.
posted by Lutoslawski at 6:59 AM on November 5, 2019 [3 favorites]


Maybe, but lead was allowed in copper plumbing in the US until 2014 (!).

(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

You mean for soldering or in the pipes material? Well at least the main water in was redone in 2018 because the waste water out had to be redone due to heavy damage from roots (I love our trees, but this was mean of them). Inside the house is a mix of pvc and old-ish copper, depending on when a particular room was redone.

I guess it's time to have it tested and be sure, not chance to take with the little one.

At least I love my water cold so I've always had a habit of letting it run a long time before driking/serving.
posted by WaterAndPixels at 7:30 AM on November 5, 2019


I know I have lead in my tap water at home, because the water utility told me as much. They provide free annual testing and a free Brita jug filter to houses that are known to be affected.

We tested as safe under the previous guidelines. Under the new ones, not so much. But I've installed an undersink filtration system in my kitchen so I don't worry too much about it.

Knowing the problem extends far beyond a few houses in specific, older neighbourhoods (my house is over 100 years old) is shocking, especially because of people outside of these older neighbourhoods would not have even been aware that their water is potentially unsafe.

As someone said upthread: maybe knowing white people in major urban centres are impacted will cause some action on reserve, as well (probably not, though, unfortunately).
posted by asnider at 8:51 AM on November 5, 2019


One thing I learned reading about this stuff is that having a mix of metals (e.g. copper and lead) increases the amount of lead that ends up in the water via galvanic corrosion, so "just a little bit of lead" in the solder joints isn't necessarily safer. E.g.:
As stagnant water contacts copper pipe and lead solder (simulated soldered joints), a corrosion cell is formed between the metals in solder (Pb, Sn) and the copper. If the resulting galvanic current exceeds about 2 μA/cm(2), a highly corrosive microenvironment can form at the solder surface, with pH < 2.5 and chloride concentrations at least 11 times higher than bulk water levels. Waters with relatively high chloride tend to sustain high galvanic currents, preventing passivation of the solder surface, and contributing to lead contamination of potable water supplies.
I only learned about this in the last couple of days, so I don't know much beyond that.
posted by clawsoon at 10:21 AM on November 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


And on top of this one, here is another very similar case from New Orleans, via Buzzfeed News:
New Orleans has failed over the last decade to do urgently needed lead testing — claiming the water was safe even after losing track of where the city's many lead pipes are — and then buried a 2017 report that would have alerted the public to the lapse. . . .

In 2016, about 11% of the kids under 6 in New Orleans tested for blood lead showed concentrations at or above 5 micrograms per deciliter (the CDC maintains that no level of blood lead is safe for children). That’s far higher than the national figure — 2.5% of kids between 1 and 5 — and double the rate in Flint during the water crisis there, when 5% of kids tested had blood lead levels that high. . . .

In fact, some of the water in people’s homes has already been shown to be unsafe. Independent testing by a research team at Louisiana State University looked at 376 New Orleans homes and found some with sky-high lead levels: as much as 284 parts per billion, nearly 19 times the EPA’s threshold for tap water.

City inspectors are supposed to test only the houses at highest risk — namely those known to have lead pipes — and should therefore be turning up the highest lead numbers. Yet in the 18 years of data the water board collected, they have never reported results over 33 parts per billion.

That should raise major alarms, said Adrienne Katner, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at LSU who led the testing and was consulted on the OIG’s investigation. “Why am I finding higher lead levels than they are?”
posted by flug at 6:04 PM on November 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


Jagmeet Singh can annex Cascadia now, please? Required disclosure: no level of Tim Eyman is safe.
posted by away for regrooving at 10:19 PM on November 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


>aspersioncast: But really lead in the drinking water is a much more immediate health risk.

No, water contributes about 20% of the lead that soil/dust does. At the height of the Flint water crisis, kids in Detroit had higher blood levels than kids in Flint. Their water may have been better but the dust there has higher lead.

If you find lead in your water, you should definitely also check for lead paint in your house.
posted by Easy problem of consciousness at 1:21 PM on November 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


water contributes about 20% of the lead that soil/dust does.

Do you have a citation on that, specifically the soil vector? This has not been my understanding at all. I can see how breathing particulate is a problem (a point I made in the very next sentence), but how is the soil getting into people's systems, through the skin?
posted by aspersioncast at 1:44 PM on November 7, 2019


http://blogs.edf.org/health/files/2017/12/Figure-1.png

The soil is primarily inhalation. You get lead dust inside from paint and lead dust outdoors from soil.
posted by Easy problem of consciousness at 3:47 PM on November 9, 2019


Ghidorah:
But for a lot of people living in Flint, and other places people say “why not just leave” about, leaving isn’t an option. There’s no money for it. There’s no savings, no cushion to live off of while finding work and housing in a new city. There’s no money to pay to move, maybe no car, no money to pay for a bus. These are people who love their children every bit as much as the people who say “I’d just grab my child and leave town,” but they also know that as much as they love their child, they can’t do that, that it’s simply not possible. It’s easy to say just leave. It’s impossibly harder to understand that yes, it would be for the best, but that you know you can’t, and that your child, who you love, will suffer because you couldn’t take them away.
Thank you for saying that, Ghidorah.

For anyone who hasn't read it:

Being Poor, John Scalzi
posted by kristi at 6:37 PM on November 9, 2019


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