Lead free! Island First Nations, municipal water systems’ managers say their infrastructure ‘modernized’

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MANITOULIN – In the wake of the November ‘Tainted Water’ investigation released in news publications across Canada, changes have already begun to take effect. Halifax, for instance, has fast-tracked its lead pipe replacement program and it is now expected to be completed a full 24 years earlier than originally planned. The November 27 Expositor contained information about lead tests at Island schools and shared how home testing is not required as part of a real estate sale.

Lead exists in the drinking water supplies of many buildings on the Island, including homes, schools and commercial outfits. The Expositor wanted to investigate further the presence of lead in community water supply systems on Manitoulin Island, so residents would know whether their concerns about lead content should be directed at public infrastructure or if the problems arise within their own spaces.

To that end, this newspaper contacted every community on Manitoulin Island that has a water treatment and distribution plant and asked about the state of their water infrastructure. All communities responded and sent information about their distribution systems. This included, from the west, Zhiibaahaasing, Sheshegwaning, Gore Bay, Billings, Central Manitoulin, M’Chigeeng, Tehkummah, Aundeck Omni Kaning, Tehkummah, the Northeast Town, Sheguiandah First Nation, Assiginack and Wiikwemkoong. 

The results may be heartening for Islanders with concerns over their water: none of the respondent townships have lead pipes in their municipal distribution networks.

Cast iron pipes do exist in the oldest water systems on Manitoulin Island. The problem with cast iron is that lead has been a common material used to weld cast iron pipe segments together, meaning lead could still leach into water. The cast iron itself, if not properly treated, could also leach impurities into the water.

Dave Williamson, CAO of the Northeast Town, said the Town of Little Current’s water system does contain some cast iron piping along Meredith Street. He estimated that cast iron may comprise as much as 10 percent of the underground fresh water piping. However, plans are in place to replace as much as half of that cast iron next year with plastic, leaving only a small portion that has not been converted.

Wiikwemkoong also has some cast iron in its system, along its main street—Wikwemikong Way. The rest of the system has been converted to plastic and the old pipes will eventually be replaced with plastics.

Gore Bay public works foreman Roger Chenard said there are a handful of segments of transite pipes, a material also known as asbestos-cement, but the bulk of the town has switched to plastic materials. In the past two years, the town has converted two major streets over to plastic. All new builds (such as the fitness centre) will use polyethylene, a modern pipe material of choice.

Every other community, however, said they strictly use plastics and copper within their distribution networks, largely because they had been installed after the standard materials changed.

Manitoulin’s relatively small size has meant that, in some ways, parts of the Island are behind the pace of innovation that occurs at larger or more centralized places. While in some circumstances this may be viewed as a negative, it has meant a much safer regime for Island municipal water systems.

By the 1990s, lead water pipes were all but eradicated from new construction projects, including municipal water supply systems. Before then, the neurotoxic metal had already fallen far from favour and many municipalities had switched to cast iron and other materials. The new standard uses plastic for main feeder systems, with copper connections when needed to reach end users.

By the time most Island communities received their water treatment plants and distribution systems, the industry had already trended firmly toward using safe plastics over metal pipe materials.

However, all of this does not mean the water that comes out of a home, business or school tap is lead-free. A significant amount of lead contamination comes from the pipes within a building, after it leaves the municipal lines. 

The November 27 story mentioned the policies and procedures in place at Island schools that are known to have lead pipes. All fixtures are flushed for three to five minutes before the start of the school day to remove any residual lead amounts. For the rest of the day, water is used regularly and does not have the time to sit stagnant in pipes and leach the heavy metal.

Numerous homes in Canada, especially those built before the standards changed in the mid-to-late 20th century, are likely to have original lead plumbing within their walls. This includes older homes on Manitoulin Island, especially those built before the 1960s. 

Internal plumbing is the principal source of lead contamination in drinking water on the Island. This includes faucets, pipe soldering material and possibly the pipes themselves. But how does one check for lead within their home?

The first place to check is the service line connection, where the municipal water supply connects to home plumbing. If the pipe is grey and has a flat matte colour, it is likely lead. If it is brown and more coloured toward copper, you are most likely safe. Lead pipes will also be soft and turn shiny if scraped with a tool such as a screwdriver.

The soldering material to join metal pipes may also contain lead. Until the National Plumbing Code of Canada was updated in 1990, many plumbers used “50/50 solder,” that is, a solder mixture of half lead and half tin. That regulation stated lead content could not exceed 0.2 percent for a potable water system.

When it comes to faucets, new fixtures may leach lead for the first year of use until they begin to accumulate a protective oxidized coating on the inside. Older brass fixtures may contain lead components as well.

If one is really concerned about lead content in their home drinking water, they can install a faucet-level activated block carbon filter. These will be specifically stamped as having the ability to remove lead if they are capable of doing so.

Reverse osmosis filters can also remove lead from water, according to Jeff Wahl of Wahl Water in Mindemoya, though he cautions that these, too, will state if they can remove lead in the documentation that comes with the filter.

Ultimately, if one is concerned or curious about the presence of lead in their water system, the best way to know for sure is to undertake home water testing. A licenced plumber should be able to identify lead plumbing, as should a home inspector.

Home testing kits are also available from select hardware stores, Canadian Tire in Espanola and from plumbing and water treatment outfitters such as Wahl Water in Mindemoya.

Following the information about lead reports within Island schools, The Expositor has contacted the Rainbow District School Board—which is steadily replacing older plumbing within its buildings—to learn more about its progress in that initiative.