Thanks to modern science, the dangers of lead poisoning are well understood. Lead has been used for pipes since the days of the Roman Empire because it’s easily shaped and more durable than other metals, though prolonged exposure can lead to neurodevelopmental disorders in children and reproductive issues in adults.
The Canadian government changed the acceptable level of lead concentration from 10 micrograms per litre to five back in March 2019. Since then, the Alberta government has put in place a lead management program to assess how prevalent the issue of lead contamination in drinking water is.
Lead plumbing was commonly used in house construction until the 1960s. As a result, municipalities across Alberta are collecting samples as part of Phase 1 to help the province gauge lead levels in residential drinking water.
The number of samples required varies according to population size, with cities over 100,000 needing 100 samples and communities smaller than 50 needing just 10 per cent of their population sampled.
Phase 1 started in May 2020 and will conclude this October. The Municipality of Crowsnest Pass, the MD of Pincher Creek and Town of Pincher Creek have all been busy collecting water samples from residents before the deadline.
Crowsnest Pass is gathering its samples by first sending out surveys to residents to determine what areas have homes with lead plumbing because the development of communities was so piecemeal a reliable historical record was difficult to keep, says chief administrative officer Patrick Thomas.
“It’s most likely to occur in houses that are 50 years or older so it’s helped us focus on areas to get results, which helps inform what the follow-through lead management should be,” he says.
With municipal water infrastructure being updated, the problem of lead pipes really only occurs in older residences that might not have been renovated, adds MD of Pincher Creek CAO Troy MacCulloch.
Since the province is asking municipalities to test residences that are connected to municipal infrastructure, the MD needs to test only Lundbreck, and CAO MacCulloch hopes people take advantage of the opportunity to find out what plumbing exists in their homes.
“It’s a great way to know what pipes are under your ground, and it’s totally free to the resident,” he says.
Town administration in Pincher Creek first targeted older homes before opening testing up to other households, and the results have been positive, says Dylan Bennett, administrative assistant for utilities.
“All of the samples that we have taken have been well below the guidelines,” he says.
Low levels of lead are easily addressed by installing point-of-use filters to remove contaminants; higher concentrations may require pipe replacement.
Alberta Environment and Parks is making plans for potential mitigation measures as it receives test results, with a guidance document detailing action plans for Phase 2 of the program scheduled for release in 2022.
More information on the program can be found online at bit.ly/AB-lead. Residents interested in participating in the study can call their respective municipal office for more information.
Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze