Winnipeg survey on lead levels in water needs more work, expert says

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City of Winnipeg testing of water quality in homes that have lead pipes needs more work, says an associate professor at the University of Manitoba's Natural Resources Institute.

The city released data Tuesday after testing water samples gathered from 268 homes in Winnipeg that have lead pipes. Approximately 20 per cent of the samples exceeded federal guidelines for lead content.

Approximately 23,000 homes in the city have at least some lead pipes and many of those have lead service pipes from the city.

"The sample is a great start. They have identified some problems, but the next sampling should be proportional, should focus on the problem areas — the areas with lead piping in housing," said Shirley Thompson.

The city did the testing after the government of Canada changed the standards for lead content in drinking water.

The city was ordered by Manitoba's Office of Drinking Water to do the tests.

Some parts of the city weren't tested adequately, Thompson said.

"So, some areas are over-sampled, and that includes Fort Garry and River Heights. Then there are others that are under-sampled, and that includes Point Douglas, which is very problematic, because it had some of the highest levels," Thompson said.

The sample from Point Douglas is a concern because the high lead level appeared after a five-minute flush of the home's pipes, she said.

The city has recommended homeowners with lead pipes flush their lines for up to five minutes before drinking the water.

Winnipeg's water contains no lead from its source — Shoal Lake — and the city adds a chemical to the water to inhibit corrosion in lead pipes in its older service lines and in homes that still contain the pipes.

Thompson said the Point Douglas sample may indicate a problem even a long flush of the pipes can't solve.

"It was showing even after a five-minute flush, which is unheard of. It is indicating there are service line problems there, because after five minutes, it wouldn't be the household property, it would be the impact of the actual service lines," Thompson said.

"Winnipeg's drinking water is safe," said a statement from the City of Winnipeg in response to Thompson's concerns.

"The initial 200 tests were conducted on a volunteer and first come, first served basis. Samples over and above 200 were redistributed to capture the city as a whole and represent as best we could the areas with lead pipes, such as Point Douglas," a city communications person wrote.

The city spokesperson said if a home has a long service line, it may take longer than a five-minute flush to get fresh water into the home.

The city's assertion drinking water is safe is backed up by a medical officer of health from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Dr. Lisa Richards said the "risk is low" for lead exposure, especially when residents follow the protocol and flush their lines for the appropriate amount of time.

Richards found it "reassuring" that most (except for Point Douglas) of the testing showed lead content decreased to acceptable levels after flushing was done.

Lead exposure can lead to serious health issues, especially in children.

"I am hopeful that we will see more data as time goes on and more sampling in areas of the city where perhaps this time round there wasn't many samples," Richards said.

The city has plans for more testing, the spokesperson said.

"Our testing plan will evolve over the years, depending on future test results, as we continue to try and capture the residences at highest risk. The next round of testing is expected to take place in spring 2020," the statement said.

The next set of tests will focus on specific areas that are at most risk, such as Point Douglas, and "testing will still be distributed across the city, as recommended by the province and national guidelines."