Tainted water in Nova Scotia: How do I get the lead out?

WATCH: A joint investigation has revealed that nearly a quarter of a million people may have lead in their well-water. But as Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, testing for lead in Nova Scotia is expensive.

On Nov. 4, a national collaborative investigation between Global News, media and academic partners, including the Star Halifax, the Institute for Investigative Journalism and the University of King’s College, unearthed disturbing findings about the prevalence of lead in tap water across Nova Scotia. If you believe your home may be at risk, the following information may be helpful. 

How do I find out if there’s lead in my drinking water?

Testing your water is the best way to find out if there’s lead in it. (See Question 4 to learn more about testing.) 

Older homes – those built more than 40 years ago – are at greater risk, because they’re more likely to have lead plumbing. Lead was banned as a material for water pipes in 1975. 

Until then, pipes made entirely or partially of lead were used for interior plumbing as well as for service lines. Lead was also used in solder until 1986, and until 2014, faucets and hardware could contain up to eight per cent lead.

READ MORE:
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Corrosive water also increases the risk of lead in drinking water. It can cause lead to leach from pipes made of materials with very trace amounts of lead, like galvanized steel and copper.

How do I know if I have corrosive water?

Well type and local geography can affect the corrosivity of your water.

Dug wells (dug with shovels or backhoes) as opposed to drilled wells (made with hydraulic drills) are more shallow and therefore more likely to let in surface water. Surface water is generally more acidic (corrosive) than groundwater. If your water comes from a well that is dug, as opposed to drilled, and/or if you have lead components in your plumbing, you are at a higher risk for lead contamination in your water.

If you notice a bitter or metallic taste when first running cold water, if you get blue-green stains in your sink, or if you’re frequently dealing with small leaks in your plumbing, your water is likely corrosive. You can also do a pH test on your water; a pH below 7 indicates corrosive water.

How do I get my drinking water tested?

Nova Scotians can have their water tested for lead through the Nova Scotia Health Authority. It costs $23.07 for one lead test. The NSHA website offers a list of labs in the province where you can pick up your testing kit and drop off water samples to be tested. You can also call the Environment Services Lab at 902-473-8466 or 1-877-936-8476. 

To measure the maximum amount of lead your family may be exposed to, sample the water after a minimum six-hour stagnation period, during which no faucets or showers in the building are used or toilets flushed – usually first thing in the morning or after returning from work. Lead leaching is highest in July and August, when the pipes are warmest.

For our investigation, we followed a three-sample method. After a six-hour stagnation, the kitchen tap was turned on at high pressure and the first sample collected immediately. The second sample was collected after the water had run for 45 seconds, and the third sample was collected after the water had run for two minutes.

Test completed. How do I interpret the test results?

Once you have your results, you can use Nova Scotia Environment’s drinking water interpretation tool available online. Or you can speak with environmental health experts at Nova Scotia Environment at 1-877-936-8476 or 902-424-7773 for further support and interpretation.

Health Canada has set the maximum acceptable concentration of lead in drinking water at five micrograms per litre, or five parts per billion.

Scientists agree there is no level of lead that is considered safe and Health Canada recommends reducing levels as much as possible. Lead exposure, even at low levels, is especially risky for fetuses, babies and young children, because it interferes with brain development.

READ MORE: Is Canada’s tap water safe? Thousands of test results show high lead levels across the country

If I have a high result, what should I do? 

Replacing any lead pipes and plumbing hardware is the best long-term solution. 

You can look at the pipes and solder joining pipes anywhere they are visible in your home. Lead is gray in colour, will not attract a magnet, and can be easily scratched with a knife or key. The scratches will appear silvery rather than coppery. You can also ask a plumber or home inspector to check for you.

Is there anything I can do right away to reduce my family’s exposure to lead?

A water filter certified for lead will remove lead to undetectable levels. 

Make sure that lead is listed on the package, and look for filters certified by the International National Sanitation Foundation to the NSF/ANSI 53 or NSF/ANSI 58 standard. Install filters at all faucets used for drinking or cooking. Be sure to replace the cartridges regularly, as instructed.

READ MORE:
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Run the water at your kitchen faucet for a few minutes before taking any, especially when you get up in the morning or after returning from work or a vacation. Always use cold water for drinking and cooking. 

I’m a renter, and found out my drinking water has lead levels above Health Canada’s limit of five micrograms/L. What can I do?

Landlords are responsible for meeting minimum housing and health standards under the Public Health Act, but responsibility for high lead levels in drinking water isn’t clearly spelled out in most provinces, including Nova Scotia. If you and your landlord can’t agree on action to be taken to reduce lead levels in your drinking water, you can try the Nova Scotia Residential Tenancies Programs here.

If you live outside of Halifax, or another city in Atlantic Canada, you should call your local municipality for more information.

Additional credits

Faculty supervisor: Pauline Dakin

 

Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University

Series producer: Patti Sonntag

Research Coordinator: Michael Wrobel

Project Coordinator: Colleen Kimmett

Investigative Reporting Fellow: Lyndsay Armstrong

 

University of King’s College, School of Journalism

 

Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University

See the full list of “Tainted Water” series credits here: concordia.ca/watercredits

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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