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150 Calgary households still get drinking water through lead pipes. Half have refused replacement

When the City of Calgary launched its lead pipe removal program in 2020, the goal was to have all the pipe replaced by the end of 2023. (CBC - image credit)
When the City of Calgary launched its lead pipe removal program in 2020, the goal was to have all the pipe replaced by the end of 2023. (CBC - image credit)

More than three years after the City of Calgary launched its $14 million accelerated lead pipe removal program, roughly 150 households in Calgary still get their drinking water through lead pipes.

Half of those households have declined replacement, often due to costs.

The program was launched in late 2020, following a national investigation that found lead pipes — and in some cases, elevated lead levels in drinking water — in cities across the country, including Calgary.

At the time, the city had at least 550 homes on record connected to public lead pipes. The goal was to have them all replaced by the end of 2023.

"We're doing what we can to ensure that everybody is drinking safe drinking water," said Melanie Gray, a senior project engineer in charge of the city's removal program.

Gray says parts of the replacement process have taken longer than expected, including the verification process. Since 2020, crews have gone in to service valves on properties and found that only some of the properties initially listed actually had lead pipes.

The city is extending the program to finish up the remaining replacements this year, she says, with about $2.2 million left in the program's budget.

Public vs. private

If lead is found in a home, the city will physically verify whether the lead piping is on the public or private side of the property. If it's just found on the city's side, it will get replaced. If it's on both, the city contacts the homeowner to see if they're willing to pay for the replacement on their side.

The cost usually averages $10,000 to $20,000, but the city is partially subsidizing that work through the program.

"We're only charging homeowners with $3,500. They can put it on their property tax bill and it's rolled over for 15 years, interest-free," said Gray.

Homeowners can also pay the fee upfront.

The city will not replace the public side without replacing the private side, and vice versa, as it's been found that it could increase lead levels in drinking water if only a partial removal is done.

Gray says almost all of the households that have declined replacement have a private component.

Health implications

In 2019, Health Canada updated its guidelines for lead in drinking water to reduce the maximum safe concentration to five parts per billion.

Dr. Mark Yarema, medical director of the Poison and Drug Information Service for Alberta Health Services, says he's been seeing that number drop in the 20 years he's been working in this space.

"I think it just emphasizes how potentially toxic lead is," said Yarema.

"There is no safe level of lead."

Dr. Mark Yarema is the medical director of Alberta's Poison and Drug Information Service.
Dr. Mark Yarema is the medical director of Alberta's Poison and Drug Information Service.

Dr. Mark Yarema is the medical director of Alberta's Poison and Drug Information Service. He says people who have lead pipes and can't or won't replace them should get a lead-certified water filter. (CBC)

According to Health Canada, while lead can cause cancer, the more worrying effect is its induced toxicity in the blood — which has been shown through studies to reduce IQ in children and cause adverse cognitive and behavioural effects, as well as increased blood pressure and renal dysfunction in adults.

Yarema says people who have lead pipes and can't or won't replace them should get a lead-certified water filter.

The city provides free pitcher-style filters for households with known lead pipes, and has a $150 rebate for filters that attach to the faucet.

"It's also worth letting people know that just boiling the water isn't efficient to get rid of lead," said Yarema.

He says people with lead pipes should also run the tap for at least a minute, with cold water, before drinking.