The question of drinking water safety has been generating a flood of headlines across the country of late.
A recent series of news stories has pointed to concerns over lead in a number of cities across Canada. These came from a one-year investigation by journalists, universities and media organizations into water quality issues.
Locally, officials say Valley water is tested regularly and shows non-detectable levels of the element. Mike Herschmiller, Comox Valley Regional District manager of water services, told the Comox Valley Record the regional district tests for metals including lead on a quarterly basis, more frequently than many communities.
The source, he says, has not been affected by industry and agriculture.
“We’re coming from a pristine source when it comes to heavy metals,” he says.
The testing shows the community’s water to be well below limits, at 0.2 parts per billion (ppb) at the tap versus the guideline of 5 ppb, a new limit lower than the previous limit of 10 ppb.
“We have basically non-detectable levels of lead in our raw water,” he said. “It’s really not a concern in the distribution system.”
The Village of Cumberland has a different source for water and does its own sampling. It completes a full spectrum analysis that includes metals. Manager of operations Rob Crisfield confirmed by email there are no concerns with the distribution system in terms of metals or meeting federal drinking water guidelines. (The newspaper contacted the Union Bay Improvement District, which also draws from a different source than the regional district, but had not heard back as of press time.)
In the recent reports, many stories compare their city’s lead totals with the beleaguered city of Flint, Mich., which generated international news stories in recent years because of problems with its drinking water system. Critics of the recent news stories have pointed out the issues around Flint residents getting sick have more to do with bacterial problems in the water system rather than the elevated levels of lead.
For example, the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. has found links between the city’s water system and Legionnaire’s disease, a type of pneumonia brought on by Legionella bacteria.
Lead is obviously a serious health concern though. Health Canada cites a number of risks from exposure, especially for children, infants and unborn babies, including damage to the brain and central nervous system and developmental delays.
For adults, risks include high blood pressure, kidney damage, anemia, digestive problems, memory loss, among others.
Herschmiller says lead was often used in plumbing for pipes or solder. In the distribution system, he has spoken with his counterparts in Courtenay and Comox, which purchase water from the CVRD and distribute it to customers, and they have found no concerns.
“We’ve never found a lead service line in the Comox Valley, so that’s a positive thing,” he said.
He does say there may still be concerns with water lines beyond the distribution system – in other words, once it flows to customers. In Canada, there have been questions around old homes or institutional buildings, such as schools, but he credits the local school district for being pro-active around the issue.
In response to the news reports, Comox Valley Schools issued a statement about the reports of lead in drinking water systems, saying the district undertakes mitigation efforts and rigorous testing to make sure drinking water is safe.
“Our goal is to maintain safe learning environments that are free from harm including exposure to contaminants of any kind,” superintendent Tom Demeo said in the news release. “Our commitment is to ensure that all schools have access to clean, safe, drinkable water.”
In recent years, the school district has annually tested for lead in any schools built before 1989. The district cites a spring environmental health report from Island Health that summarized the school district has completed 100 per cent of its facilities in question and remediated any issues where maximums had been exceeded. Island Health recommended the district, along with sampling at schools, conduct ongoing maintenance and install measures such as auto-flush valves or filters.
“Our most recent test results demonstrate that water qualities in the district remain within the acceptable thresholds for lead content as mandated by Health Canada,” Demeo said. “We also have developed a thorough written plan for the ongoing maintenance that outlines procedures and timelines and will review all existing data to ensure that no sites exceed the MAC level of lead.”
As far as homes, Herschmiller said people with old houses may have concerns and get tests. If homeowners want to get their water tested, it is important to take samples fresh from the tap in the morning, so the water is stagnant. This gives the most accurate levels of what exposure people may be facing in terms of levels of lead that might be present in drinking water.
(This story has been edited since first posted.)