The Local Ramifications of Canada’s Water Scandal

V. S. Wells details what it means for Vancouver to be drinking lead 

Bridget Stringer-Holden // Contributor 

A report on Canada’s water has been printed in the Toronto Star, Global News, National Observer, and various other publications. Over 120 reporters, editors, staff and faculty members from nine Canadian universities and ten media organizations have been working on a year-long investigation that uncovered the leaching of lead into drinking water.  

Wanting to get some international experience in journalism, UBC journalist V. S. Wells collaborated through a class offered at UBC in this top-secret investigation reporting on Canada’s water. Wells and her team had access to data from BC’s school testing program for lead, but it didn’t include individual houses. “We were basically starting from scratch,” said Wells. “We had a sense that this was a problem, we had seen all these news reports that popped up, especially about the First Nations’ water and lead being a problem there.” 

Wells used the Vancouver City Data Portal to choose what houses to test in Vancouver. The records don’t state anything about property ages, but includes open data files about property tax. Wells then made a spreadsheet and found properties built before the 1950s to test, which were the most likely to be affected by the lead service lines.   

After mapping out all the homes, Wells went door-knocking with the rest of her team. The standardized test was composed of three bottles: the first bottle was to be filled after the taps were left undisturbed overnight. Then, the second bottle was filled after running the water for either 30 seconds or a minute. Lastly, the third bottle would be filled after the taps had been running for two minutes. This three-bottle method allowed for a better idea of where the lead was coming from.  

In Prince Rupert, testing found that 84 percent of homes had water that was either unsafe or completely undrinkable. The city began to address the concerns more seriously after the investigation, yet still claim that the data is “misrepresentative.” “The local paper in Prince Rupert had covered it before and honestly that should have been enough impetus for the government to start doing something,” Wells said. 

20 percent of homes in Vancouver had dangerous lead levels, but the full scope is hard to gauge. “Of the 15 homes we tested, three had elevated lead levels,” Wells said. The City of Vancouver has left it up to the individuals to replace lead service lines without funding. Also, there are no laws that obligate landlords to deal with lead service lines or pipes, which can be problematic for renters. 

Some things that people can do to reduce lead in their drinking water is to run water for about 30 seconds to a minute before drinking it. Having a shower first thing in the morning or washing your hands is a good way to dislodge standing water without running it and wasting it. Using cold water instead of hot will also reduce the likelihood of lead leaching. For those who know that there is a problem with lead but cannot afford to have the pipes replaced, filters that are National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) certified to remove lead can be purchased.  

Releasing their findings to other researchers is one of the next steps. Wells also thinks that more testing should be done at different points in the distribution system to get a better sense of how widespread this issue is. As children are the most vulnerable to illnesses from accumulations of lead in their bloodstreams, schools and daycares should be a priority.  

Wells has seen some concrete changes happen as a result of the research she was a part of, Regina being one example. “Regina has announced that it’s going to speed up its lead service removal plan, I think originally they weren’t intending on removing all of the known lead pipes [for 20-25 years] and in light of our investigation, they’ve declared that they’re going to speed up how quickly they’re removing those pipes,” she said. 

To stay updated with the investigation and the release of the findings, look up the Institute for Investigative Journalism on Twitter @CU_IIJ for threads with the new articles as they are published and compilations of the work that has been done so far. 

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