Until recently, Brandon tap water made headlines for being so safe and pure that city council turfed the distilled stuff from its august halls and installed brand-new drinking fountains throughout.
Last March, there was a hiccup when elevated levels of trihalomethanes, including chloroform, were found in the city’s water. But it was just a hiccup. The levels were only slightly higher than federal guidelines and the chemicals are a byproduct of the disinfection process.
Yesterday’s news that thousands of Brandon homeowners may be drinking water contaminated with lead is orders of magnitude worse.
Even low levels of lead exposure, over the long term, have been linked to poor intellectual development, kidney problems and hearing disorders, among other things.
At first, provincial officials declined to reveal just how much lead had been found in Brandon water. They said they were first advising property owners whose water was actually tested as part of the pilot project of the results of those tests.
That wouldn’t have done much for people who weren’t part of that original test — but who live or work in one of those thousands of buildings that could be affected.
Thankfully, after some prodding from our reporters, the province reconsidered. So far, they’ve found levels as high as 50 micrograms per litre in Brandon homes — five times the recommended limit. Information provided by the province suggests that that’s high enough to cause lower IQs in children, to put pregnancies at risk and to increase chances of hypertension in men.
While a far cry from levels as high as 450 micrograms that were found in Winnipeg in the 1990s, we note that the province has only tested 11 Brandon homes so far, and has only drawn water on another nine.
Some 3,600 homes in older areas of the city could be affected. It’s impossible to know what levels may lurk in some of our city’s older corners.
The problem apparently dates back to lead pipes installed prior to 1950 that may still be in service in much of Brandon. They’ve provided a map, which we have printed on the front page.
Water coming directly from the city treatment plant meets the provincial standards of 10 micrograms per litre, the city says, but the metal can leach into the water while passing through old lead pipes, or through joints that were soldered with lead.
Although the pipes in your home might be fine, lead may be present in the service lines that run from water mains in the street to the building.
Starting next week, worried homeowners will be able to pick up testing bottles from city hall, and have their water checked. And the city will only charge you $20 — or $45 if you’re not deemed to live in an affected area.
Then, if lead is uncovered pouring from your taps, the city says it will cover half the costs of replacing those pipes — up to your property line. But homeowners will be stuck with the full cost of replacing these “poison pipes” the rest of the way.
With all due respect, offering to cover half of one-half of the costs doesn’t sound very generous.
While we realize full replacement of all the old lead pipes could cost tens of millions of dollars — and take decades — the alternative of just telling homeowners to buy a Brita and keep their mouths closed in the shower doesn’t seem like enough.
And, a few questions still remain.
For instance, if trihalomethanes were detected in testing last year — tests that city officials went out of their way to say Brandon otherwise passed with 100 per cent compliance — then why wasn’t the lead detected, too?
From the sounds of it, no one was looking.
But why not? If the issue is lead pipes and lead solder from pre-1950s construction, then we must conclude the problem has been ongoing for some 60 years. Has no one looked in the water for lead anytime in the past six decades?
Whatever the reason, the lead contamination was finally uncovered during provincial testing last year — testing that also included Winnipeg, Portage la Prairie and Steinbach. No information was released yesterday on the results from those communities.
Is the lead in our pipes a concern province-wide? Or is it somehow unique to Brandon?
Unfortunately, we’re still waiting for the answers to these and other questions.
Officials must be immediately forthcoming with more detail if they are going to maintain any trust from the public.
People who may have spent their entire lives drinking lead-contaminated tapwater — tapwater that they were repeatedly assured was safe — deserve full answers, fast.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition February 8, 2013