After reports of high lead content in the water of some Canadian cities, should NWT residents be worried about lead in their drinking water? The short answer is no, officials said.
On November 4, an investigative report revealed the lead in a range of Canadian cities' water exceeded national safety guidelines of 0.010 mg/L.
This water had been tested at treatment plants across the country and was safe when it left the facility.
However, the report – published by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism and its partners – found water then became contaminated as it travelled though municipal lead service pipes to homes and schools.
The NWT is not in the same situation, authorities said this week – thanks largely to the comparative youth of its housing and infrastructure.
The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (Maca) told Cabin Radio its staff were not aware of any lead pipes in the Northwest Territories.
“Lead pipes were not used in our distribution systems and communities with corrugated metal pipes [as Yellowknife once had] have replaced them,” wrote spokesperson Coralee Round.
Typically, said Round, municipal pipes in the NWT are made of ductile iron or high-density polyethylene.
According to Maca, lead has not been used in home plumbing or water pipes since 1945. Because there are so few older homes in the NWT, lead is typically not a concern. Maca says people in older homes who do think there may be a concern should run the water for a few minutes before drinking it, to clear out water left sitting in the pipes.
"It is possible that some building may have fittings or fixtures that contain lead, but we wouldn’t have any information on that,” said Round.
Communities routinely sample their water at treatment plants and truckfills and send those samples to the Department of Health and Social Services for testing, which is governed by the Public Health Act.
“As far as testing at the end points, this is also an area that [the health department] would control," said Round. "They don’t have any guidance on whether the testing should be done by the community or the building owners."
Round said as far as Maca knows, there has never been a lead exceedance recorded at water treatment plants. If there was, she said, the health department would assess the results and determine if an advisory were needed.
Maca’s annual community chemical report for 2018 water treatment plants can be found here. While lead was not reported to exceed safe levels in any community, some reports did show high levels of manganese, aluminum, or iron. Water quality data for 2019 won’t be available until next year.
Lead is a concern as, if it builds up over time, it can affect the central nervous system. In children, it can affect intellectual and behavioural development.
No pipe concern in Yellowknife, Hay River
Cabin Radio reached out to the municipal governments of Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Smith, Inuvik, Fort Simpson, and Norman Wells to ask if those communities test drinking water at its destination and if they were aware of any local lead pipes.
Only spokespeople from Hay River and Yellowknife responded. Both said they did not test drinking water on private property, nor were they aware of any lead pipes serving their municipalities.
"The private connection pipes that are used at residences or businesses throughout town to connect to the Town system. We do not necessarily know with 100-percent certainty what has been put in as these are the responsibility of the owner," wrote Mike Auge, Hay River’s director of public works.
"But, in discussing this with our works crew, we don’t believe that there are any lead service pipes here either, as we have not encountered any during any repair or replacement work that we perform."
The City of Yellowknife said testing water on private property was the responsibility of property owners.
While NWT water is regarded as having little lead risk in general, possible exposure is being tracked as the Giant Mine clean-up around Yellowknife begins.
In fall 2017 and spring 2018, the Health Effects Monitoring Program associated with the clean-up collected baseline levels of exposure to lead, arsenic, and cadmium in Yellowknife, Ndilo, and Dettah residents.
In May 2019, researchers shared that baseline data with the communities. They found samples from Yellowknives Dene children and adults contained higher lead levels than the Canadian average.
At the time, the researchers said they would discuss with Yellowknives Dene leaders whether work would take place to identify possible sources of lead exposure.
The researchers have said they will resample residents’ urine and toenails in 2022 and 2027 to ensure contaminant levels are not increasing as remediation work gets under way.
Lastly, the NWT government advises hunters to use steel, bismuth, or iron ammunition instead of lead ammunition. While the risk of lead exposure from wild game is low, the territory says people can further reduce their risk by cleaning the animal soon after it has been shot with a lead bullet.