IS IT LEAD POISONING? 1,042 WORDS ON LEAD IN OUR CITIES
Lead has been used in water pipes for as long as we can remember. Abundant, malleable and resistant, the metal is ideal for the production of pipes to carry water. The first known lead pipes systems in western culture appeared in Rome, where sheets of lead (plumbum) were used by plumbarii (plumbers) to line Roman aqueducts and lead pipes to convey water.
Lead pipes are often cited as the cause of the decline of the Roman Empire, although this theory is now discarded in favour of lead containers and vases, the Punic wars, the Arab sacking of Rome, or inertia. In any event, even back then Roman authors recognized the toxicity of lead. According to Vitruvius, a Roman author, architect, and civil engineer under Augustus,
“Water conducted through earthen pipes is more wholesome than that through lead… This may be verified by observing the workers in lead, who are of a pallid colour…”, he writes in De Architectura.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, little in the way of indoor plumbing existed for nearly a millennium in Europe as outhouses made a big comeback. Lead pipes did make a short reappearance in England when Hull laid them throughout the town in 1460. Not that they stayed there for any length of time. As the story goes, they were soon unearthed to pay for the chamberlains’ debts after the War of Roses. Or so they say.
But they came back with a vengeance.
Installation of lead pipes in America on a major scale began in the late 1800s, particularly in the larger cities. By 1900, more than 70% of cities with populations greater than 30000 used lead water lines.
Soon however, accounts of lead poisoning from drinking water began to multiply in public health and newspapers. By the 1920s, many cities and towns were prohibiting or restricting the use of lead pipes, while the lead industry waged vigorous campaigns to promote them.
Yet, in spite of all the medical and public health alerts to the dangers of lead pipes, 30 years later, it was still used in water service lines and fittings in most parts of the world.
In The Lead Industry and Lead Water Pipes “A MODEST CAMPAIGN”, Richard Rabin writes:
“Several factors contributed. One relates to the lingering doubts among water engineers and water authorities about the risks of lead pipes. Throughout the 19th century, attempts had been made by some physicians to link lead water pipes to cases of severe illness. However, these were met with considerable skepticism by water authorities, most of the medical community, and the general public: not everyone consuming water from lead pipes became sick, many of the symptoms of lead poisoning mimic those of other diseases, and the medical tests for diagnosing lead poisoning were not well developed.”
Sound familiar? Some things never change.
So here we stand on the threshold of space in this fourteenth year of the 21rst millennium and most of our cities still have lead pipes buried under their streets and lawns.
Not so many they say, but still.
The issue re-merged in Canada somewhere between 2005 and 2008. Media headlined the health risks, citizens were alarmed, cities scrambled to patch the problem and then the whole thing was more or less put on the back burner as media shifted its short attention span elsewhere and new drinking water issues took precedence. The issue was never fully resolved. The problem never really fixed.
It essentially boils down to this. Homes built before 1955 have lead water service lines connecting them the municipal water supply system, consequently the level of lead in the tap water of these older homes has been found to be significantly higher than the allowable maximum of 0.010 milligrams per litre or 10 parts per billion.
So it is that around 2007 most Canadian cities dutifully proceeded to estimate the numbers of lead service lines in their jurisdiction and set up lead pipe replacement programs of one form or another. None of these subsidized the service line form the owners’ property line to the home, but most provided some kind of financing options if your property taxes were in good stead. This often resulted in partial lead pipe replacement, as owners balked at the cost ($2,000 to 5,000) and the bother of digging up their lawns and gardens to remove their portion of the lead service line.
It wasn’t long before municipal resolve started waning along with dwindling city budgets. Lead pipe replacement programs slowed down as they became tied to capital rehabilitation initiatives and available funds. Other pressing drinking water issues such as combined sewage overflows, back flow contamination and ageing infrastructure took the limelight. Not to mention that new US and Canadian research revealed that partial lead pipe replacement could be worse than no replacement at all.
In 2011, Dr. Michèle Prévost's research team at École Polytechnique de Montréal reported that: "Under moderate/high flow rates (8 to 32 L/min) in our laboratory setting, partial replacement of Lead Service Lines with copper pipe released about three times more lead than a 100% lead pipe.”
Plumbers we talked to in Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto displayed a profound distrust of municipalities, questioning their goodwill, transparency and procedures. According to them nothing gets fixed because the fix is in.
Back to square one. Today, as far as we know and numbers are hard to come y, there are slightly less than the estimated 75,000 lead service lines in Montreal which the city vowed to fix by 2026, a few years ago. In Toronto there were 65,000 in 2007 but 20,000 have since been replaced under the Lead Pipe Replacement Program. Hamilton has some 30,000, Ottawa around 40,000 and Winnipeg 25,000. And there are waiting lists and no guarantees that the replacement programs won’t be canceled as other priorities beg and cities run out of funds.
“There is a bigger problem out there that the City is trying to hide, says Pro Flow’s Jon Leblanc. “Their infrastructure is destroyed; it can’t handle what is going on. Last week 190 mm of rain fall in 2 hours, there were city streets where the manhole lids were popping.”
“It’s a question of what the city want to throw its money at, people’s houses flooding or Alzheimer,” he says.
LEAD UPDATE: THE MONTRÉAL SITUATION 2017/6/27
PRIVATE MEMBER MOTION SEEKS TO DEFINE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
ROLE IN ADDRESSING LEAD IN DRINKING WATER- 2017/6/6
LEAD IN CANADIAN SCHOOL WATER MAKES HEADLINES AGAIN - 2016/2/28
POURING SALT ON AN OPEN WOUND, FLINT ISSUES A BOIL WATER ADVISORY - 2016/2/10
IS IT LEAD POISONING? 1,042 WORDS ON LEAD IN OUR CITIES - 2014/7/28
Medieval Hull - British History Online
The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster. by Werner Troesken
The Lead Industry and Lead Water Pipes “A MODEST CAMPAIGN”
By Richard Rabin, MSPH
Lead Poisoning and Rome
Lead pipes: Experts review the problem
210 Reasons for the decline of the Roman Empire
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