Lead: It’s likely in your water, city tests show

The next time you fill a glass with water from your tap, will you be thinking twice?

Recently released data shows that about 13 percent of Toronto residents’ tap water contains unsafe levels of lead, with some areas — such as sections of Airdrie Road, Laird Drive and Hanna Road in Leaside — having as many as 50 percent with failed tests.

The lead levels in drinking water are a result of lead water pipes. They were commonplace, both as part of home plumbing and in the city water distribution system, until the mid-1950s. The city has since 2008 been replacing lead water pipes with copper pipes whenever city crews work on water mains. This spring the city has also begun introducing into the water supply a phosphate that will coat the inside of the pipes and help prevent lead from breaking down into the water.

The data showing the distribution and results of lead testing was released through a freedom of information request and published May 20 in the Toronto Star.

Councillor John Parker says he hopes that information will speed up the replacing of lead pipes in his area.

“We can expect that to put those areas higher on the list of areas to get attention,” he said, referring to the city’s current pipe replacement initiatives.

“We know that Leaside as a community was built in the time period that is under consideration for review in this regard.”

Lou Di Gironomo, general manager for Toronto Water, calls the results of the tests “highly variable,” because the samples collected for testing were taken by homeowners and not through controlled tests by the city’s water authority.

Water temperature can affect results, with colder water often producing results with lower lead levels, while the pH level of the water can make a difference as well, he said.

Pass or fail, getting rid of a lead service line is what Di Gironomo says is most important. For homeowners who cannot afford the average $3,000 cost of replacing the lead pipes he suggests finding a water filter capable of filtering out lead that can be attached to the end of taps.

The city estimates there are 40,000 lead service lines remaining, down from 65,000 when replacing the lines began.

Parker said the city is trying to work with affected communities to get all pipes replaced simultaneously.

“The ideal way is to do the entire community all at once — the city pipes and the pipes leading into the affected homes,” he said. “The city’s trying to coordinate with homeowners to get the work done in the most efficient way possible.”

Health risks

Lead can pose a risk to both the nervous system and the brain, leading to a deficiency in math and reading skills, motor skills, or a development of attention deficit hyperactive disorder. Those most at risk include pregnant women, infants and children under 6.

Failure rates in midtown lead testing by postal code
Failure rates in midtown lead testing by postal code

What to do if your water has lead in it

Install a filter on your tap: Di Gironomo says only certain filters will get the job done, so when buying a filter, make sure the box says it can handle lead.

Replace the lead pipes on your property: Though a costly initiative — estimated at $3,000 on average — it is the best way to make sure there is no lead in your tap water.

Use cold water: Lead is more prominent in hot water, so if you have lead pipes cold water is the safer choice for drinking and cooking.

Streets within Leaside found most affected

Postal zone M4G
(Leaside and North Leaside)
319 tests
39 fails
12.2% failure rate
19.89% failure rate, excluded areas with no fails

Most affected areas are:
M4G 1M – Airdrie Road (from Bessborough Drive up to Heath Street East on the west side and Markham Avenue on the east side) 6/12
M4G 3X – Laird Drive (from Eglinton Avenue East up to Glenvale Boulevard) 3/5
M4G 3N – Leaside High School and Hanna Road (from Rolland Road up to Parklea Drive) 4/8

Most affected areas totals:
25 tests
13 fails
52% failure rate