Accessibility/Mobile Features
Skip Navigation
Skip to Content
Editorial News
Opinion
Classified Sites

Brandon Sun - PRINT EDITION

WATERGATE: Get the lead out

Workers with the City of Brandon at the scene of a water main break on 22nd Street, south of Ottawa Avenue in Brandon a couple of years ago. That’s in an area built after 1950 — now known as the Green Zone — where poisonous lead services to home from the water main weren’t used.

FILE Enlarge Image

Workers with the City of Brandon at the scene of a water main break on 22nd Street, south of Ottawa Avenue in Brandon a couple of years ago. That’s in an area built after 1950 — now known as the Green Zone — where poisonous lead services to home from the water main weren’t used.

"I spent 25 years drinking tap water in a house in the 300-block of Second Street. Am I going to die of lead poisoning??"

— A former resident of the Blue Zone who now lives in the Green Zone.

That’s the type of question I’ve been receiving since the startling news broke Thursday that thousands of older Brandon houses could have deadly lead leeching into their tap water.

And since I’m not a doctor — and I don’t even play one on TV — I have no good answer for this person, who happens to be a close friend.

Even the province is vague, as there are so many variables:

• Ongoing exposure to small amounts of lead can cause health effects, especially for infants and young children. Lead taken in by pregnant women may affect the health of unborn children.

• The symptoms of long-term, low-level exposure may not be obvious. The health effects of lead exposure can include anemia, kidney effects, small increases in blood pressure, nervous system and developmental effects.

• Low levels of lead exposure may affect intellectual development, behaviour, size and hearing of infants and children.

All I know is that health risks aside, Brandon has just experienced the largest single-day blow to its reputation that I can recall. And the worst part is that it’s going to take decades to fix at a cost of millions of dollars.

It is estimated there are approximately 3,600 homes within the city of Brandon built prior to 1950 that may still have lead service connections remaining on the public right-of-way, which stretches from the water main to the property line.

However, the city does not have access to information on how many homes built prior to 1950 may still have lead service connections from their property line running into the residence, the Sun reported yesterday.

"We’re talking about the services that run from the water main on the street, to a person’s house, connected to your water meter," said Patrick Pulak, the city’s deputy director of engineering.

"It’s an issue that’s been experienced by many cities across Canada, as lead pipes or lead services were acceptable construction standards prior to the 1950s."

I’m told the city has been working over a number of years to replace lead water services (from the water main to the curb) whenever there has been a replacement of the water main in the area. About 1,570 main-to-curb services have been replaced (roughly 30 per cent of them all).

Ironically, prior to yesterday’s announcement the lead service replacement cost-sharing program (from the water main to the curb) has been around since 2001. But I’m told it has had virtually no uptake from residents, though it remains a budget line annually.

I think that could change now that the info is out about the lead menace coursing through town.

But was the stone-faced serious media conference — that I’m told harkened back to the most desperate times of the 2011 flood media briefings — with the maps and press releases, which referred to further charts and information bulletins all really necessary?

Did it create more mental anguish than the actual physical harm the lead ingested will do to people over time?

A provincial study showed high lead levels have been found in the tap water of some older Brandon homes — in one lone case, the lead concentration was nearly five times the Canadian standard.

That will have some dramatic effects on our quality of life and on the real estate business — and business in general:

• Efforts to restore the historic central area could be slowed. Lots of people are looking for any excuse to ignore the core. And now it’s known as a place where the water is iffy.

• Values of homes in the Blue Zone (the colour on the city map showing existing pre-1950 lead services from the watermain to your house) could instantly drop by $10,000 or more — the rough price to replace the lead water service pipes that enter your home, even with some partial financial help from the city.

• City budgets will be overly concerned with replenishing funding to cost-sharing programs to help homeowners to replace the lead service pipes and taxes will have to rise to accommodate the public outcry to get the lead out.

• Bottled water and water filters will become scarce commodities, until retailers get new orders in.

• Politicians who lobbied to get bottled water out of schools and city facilities in favour of drinking "safe" city H2O out of fountains will see their careers swirling around the bowl. (Didn’t they do the tiniest bit of research about similar lead problems in other Canadian cities? )

• The situation will get even worse, once the more affluent homeowners are seen getting their pipes replaced starting in the spring while those of modest means and elderly people on fixed income simply can’t afford to shell out the cash.

• Demands will be made for government to offer aid programs to the needy, putting more pressure on the public purse.

People will start looking for someone to blame, but they’ll have to start looking for living relatives of former mayors such as E. Fotheringham (early 1930s); F.H. Young (’30s-’40s) and L.H. McDorman (mid-’40s). Those are the fellas who turned to lead for service pipes when copper was needed for the Second World War. And lead has actually been used for centuries to carry water all over the world.

With the exception of Winnipeg, recent generations of Manitoba civic leaders have mostly dragged their feet on this issue. Winnipeg reported yesterday it doesn’t have the same problems as Brandon.

At least Brandon has replaced most of the central metal watermains with plastic pipes over the years.

But leaving the lead service pipes running off of the new plastic mains is another example of how infrastructure programs of all types have been set aside in the past few decades in favour of flashier and shinier policies and programs.

I have a pretty simple and easy fix to this whole debacle that will allay the fears of homeowners and rest the concerns of parents sending their precious tykes off to school.

Until you can get around to making a super-pricey permanent fix to your house by digging up your lawn and replacing the service line, just buy a filter (faucet, pretty cheap; undersink, more expensive; or point-of entry for the whole house; expensive, but a great fix). Problem solved.

And as for the fancy drinking fountains in public places? Just install a colourful new beverage dispenser in front of them, offering water as one of the many delicious drinks. Sure it’s not free, but again — problem solved.

And of course, there’s always delicious and handy water in those small plastic bottles.

So while the city should be thanked for getting the information out in a timely fashion about the potential for lead contamination in certain parts of the city, it might have considered a slightly lower-key approach.

A provincial pilot project study was undertaken in 2012. It looked at the lead levels in tap water in select homes and buildings in Brandon, Winnipeg, Portage la Prairie and Steinbach.

So far, 11 out of 20 homes have been tested in Brandon, the Sun reported yesterday. The provincial standard for lead concentration in drinking water is 10 micrograms per litre. The homes tested ranged from 0.5 to 49.5 micrograms per litre.

Results of the study will soon be finalized and homeowners involved are expected to receive their results over the next few days.

City manager Scott Hildebrand said after receiving the preliminary results, they believed being "proactive" was the best way to go.

"We felt … providing our residents with proper information and resources to help was the right thing to do," Hildebrand said.

I say letters sent to each house in the suspect areas and a simple press release explaining that tests are being conducted and there are some problems would have sufficed.

This isn’t a new phenomenon in Canada. But the way it was presented on Thursday and subsequently reported by media across the province made it sound like something quite unusual, disturbing and a bit scary.

The big map with the thick blue lines showing what streets are now blacklisted likely was overkill.

Great graphics for our front page, but from a city’s standpoint, it should be careful not to alarm it’s citizens. As it does each month with the emergency siren test at rush-hour on a Wednesday followed by an inaudible garbled voice message that nobody knows what to do about. But I digress.

As of next week, homeowners can pick up a self-testing kit from the city’s engineering department on the second floor of city hall.

The kit and testing will cost $45. However, if the individual lives in the identified areas where pre-1950 lead connections may exist, the cost will be $20.

"The city will pick up the other $25 cost, we will transport the samples to Winnipeg, have the results come back to us and we will then get it to the residents," Pulak said.

Once people have had their water tested — again, the poorest among us aren’t going to fork over $20 even for that — then the city needs to work with the most serious cases and start making Brandon’s drinking water completely safe in all neighborhoods again.

It’s going to take years — decades — and might never get completely done.

And in the interim, a clean bill of health from the province — or even one that shows a low level of lead — combined with some form of lead filtration will hopefully help the prospects of the real estate sector in the central area.

You see, Thursday’s admission of a lead problem in the City of Brandon’s drinking water was a start of a long process. A loud, splashy start to a situation seen by countless other communities in North America over the years.

Unless the problem is far worse then officials are letting on, it could have been handled in a less startling manner so my friends don’t send me anxious messages about their health in the middle of the night.

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition February 9, 2013

  • Rate this Rate This Star Icon
  • This article has not yet been rated.
  • We want you to tell us what you think of our articles. If the story moves you, compels you to act or tells you something you didn’t know, mark it high. If you thought it was well written, do the same. If it doesn’t meet your standards, mark it accordingly.

    You can also register and/or login to the site and join the conversation by leaving a comment.

    Rate it yourself by rolling over the stars and clicking when you reach your desired rating. We want you to tell us what you think of our articles. If the story moves you, compels you to act or tells you something you didn’t know, mark it high.

Sort by: Newest to Oldest | Oldest to Newest | Most Popular 0 Commentscomment icon

You can comment on most stories on brandonsun.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is register and/or login and you can join the conversation and give your feedback.

There are no comments at the moment. Be the first to post a comment below.

Post Your Commentcomment icon

Comment
  • You have characters left

The Brandon Sun does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. Comments are moderated before publication. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

"I spent 25 years drinking tap water in a house in the 300-block of Second Street. Am I going to die of lead poisoning??"

— A former resident of the Blue Zone who now lives in the Green Zone.

Please subscribe to view full article.

Already subscribed? Login to view full article.

Not yet a subscriber? Click here to sign up

"I spent 25 years drinking tap water in a house in the 300-block of Second Street. Am I going to die of lead poisoning??"

— A former resident of the Blue Zone who now lives in the Green Zone.

Subscription required to view full article.

A subscription to the Brandon Sun Newspaper is required to view this article. Please update your user information if you are already a newspaper subscriber.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

Brandon Sun Business Directory
Sudden Surge: Flood of 2014
Opportunity Magazine — The Bakken
Why Not Minot?
Welcome to Winnipeg

Social Media