Thunder Bay’s Lead Control Program: Unforeseen Consequences
Posted on: February 13, 2020

Thunder Bay, like many Canadian cities, has water pipes made out of lead which has resulted in contaminated drinking water. In Thunder Bay, lead was often used in pipes up until 1952. The older homes in Thunder Bay are more likely to have pipes made of lead supplying their water. In Canada, lead pipes were banned in 1975, but the use of lead solder only stopped in 1986.

The contaminated water arises from the pipes. Thankfully, the water being pumped from the lake has little to no lead. Some of the pipes delivering water on private property and city property are still made of lead. To address the issue of lead in the drinking water, the city ran a pilot program in 2016 that added sodium hydroxide to water to reduce the lead corrosion in the pipes. In 2018, sodium hydroxide was added to all drinking water in Thunder Bay. As a result, the lead levels dropped. But in the past few months, the number of pinhole leaks has increased. Pinhole leaks used to not be an issue for the city, but the increased number of reports led the city to consider changing their corrosion control plan.

The pinhole leaks have come from houses with copper pipes. The copper pipes are thought to be corroded by the sodium hydroxide which creates weakness and pinhole leaks form.

The city will be making changes to the drinking water by removing the sodium hydroxide. As a result, lead levels are likely to increase for residents with lead pipes either on their property or from a city line. The pH levels in the city are also expected to change. To address the issue, the city will contact the list of approximately 8,700 houses who this will affect through lead service pipe connections. As a short-term fix, the city will hand out water filters to the households affected.

The water filters are a temporary solution. The problem will only be solved once all the lead pipes are removed and replaced. There are plans to replace the service pipes over future years. Although, customers are responsible for replacing the pipes that run from the property line into their property. The city plans to replace 150 lead pipes that run from the street to the property line each year. The pipes are a big concern, but the solder used in pipes can also cause lead leaks and should also be addressed.

In the meantime, there are a few things that can be done to reduce lead exposure. One way is to run cold water for 3-5mins before using any of the water. Once the water is very cold, you can fill up pitchers, kettles, or pots to use for drinking and cooking. Make sure to always use cold water since there is likely to be less lead in the water. You can also use the lead water filter provided by the city (or one purchased) to filter water before drinking and cooking. If you’re concerned about other water uses, the city notes that water for bathing and laundry does not need to be filtered. If your water hasn’t been used in a few hours, make sure to flush your pipes by running water. One other thins residents should do is clean out their faucet aerators since they can also collect lead.

The city has contacted the residents who have lead pipes connecting to their house, but if you are concerned about high lead levels in your water the city offers free testing. You can also do a preliminary test at home by looking at your pipes. If your pipes have a dull grey colour and if scratched leaves a shiny mark, the pipes could potentially be made from lead.

The shiny surface of a lead pipe after being scratched.

The testing uses the three-sample approach. To test for lead levels, the water in your pipes should remain stagnant for up to six hours. Then the tap is turned on and the first sample is taking immediately. The second sample is taken 45s later and the third sample is taken 2 mins after. The different times can help determine where the source of lead is coming from if there is one.

Other cities across Canada have also gone through similar experiences. Toronto used to have one of the highest lead concentrations in the country. The city decided to add orthophosphate to protect the pipes from lead corrosion. The phosphate coats the pipes and prevents high rates of lead erosion. Since implanting the corrosion control, only 2% of the pipes sample exceed unsuitable levels of lead of 5 parts per billion. Other cities across Canada such as Windsor, Hamilton, and Quebec City have also added phosphates to their drinking water to address lead corrosion.

Any level of lead is problematic, but the higher concentrations pose greater consequences. The groups most vulnerable to high lead levels are children under 6, pregnant women, and women planning to get pregnant. These groups should take special concern with their drinking water.

There is currently no legislation in place for landlords to fix lead pipes. If you are a tenant of a household or building with lead pipes, have a conversation with your landlord addressing your concern to hopefully find a solution.

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