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Lead In Drinking Water: A Health Perspective

By Dr. Amy Frykoda, Medical Officer of Health- Prairie Mountain Health

      In April 2018, the City of Dauphin issued a caution to residents about lead in drinking water. Although the city’s treated water supply contains no detectable level of lead, the city was being proactive and decided to sample water from individual properties within their distribution system following a request from the Province. New drinking water guidelines recommending testing for lead at the taps in homes and buildings are anticipated, and water systems were asked to begin assessing lead levels at the tap.

     Lead typically gets into tap water as it passes through distribution systems, service connections and plumbing pipes in the home. The highest lead levels in tap water are often a result of leaching from lead service lines.

      Early results showed lead levels in drinking water samples from some properties in Dauphin with lead service lines were higher than the current Canadian drinking water guideline, and recommendations were provided by the City to these properties along with their independent water test results (Further details are available on the City of Dauphin website.

      As Medical Officer of Health for Prairie Mountain Health, I want to express my gratitude for the excellent work done by the City of Dauphin and the Manitoba Office of Drinking Water on this matter. I appreciate the leadership shown by Dauphin City staff, and look forward to working with other communities on this issue. I wanted to further touch on the health risks of exposure to lead, and why we are encouraging testing of your drinking water, especially if you have lead service lines.

     Human exposure to lead has declined significantly in the last 30 years due to the removal of lead in gasoline and lead in paint. However, recent information indicates that lead can have effects on health at lower levels of exposure than were previously known.

     Everyone should minimize lead exposure as much as possible. However, due to lead’s effect on the developing brain, children and unborn children are more sensitive to lead exposure. Lead exposure, even at low levels, has been associated with developmental delays of childhood behaviours, a decrease in language skills, intellectual disability and delayed puberty. Population studies of low levels of lead exposure in children has shown associations with reduced intelligence quotient (IQ) scores and adverse effects on behaviour compared to children who had less exposure to lead.

     The health effects of lead exposure are usually not obvious, but a number of health systems can be affected. The higher and longer the exposure to lead, the greater the effect on health. Water levels around 0.010 mg/L would be considered a low level lead exposure and may have some effects on intellectual development and behaviour of children. Population studies have also shown associations with increases in blood pressure and reduced kidney function in adults with relatively low levels of lead exposure. High levels of lead exposure have additional health impacts, although these would not be anticipated with exposure to lead in drinking water. High lead exposure can cause heart disease, depression, reduced fertility, fatigue, nerve damage, memory loss and can affect concentration and sleep as well as a number of other symptoms.

      Please see the Manitoba Health, Seniors and Active Living fact sheet for more information.

     Dauphin residents are encouraged to have their water tested, especially if they have a lead service connection or live in an older home where solder or plumbing fixtures may contain lead. The City of Dauphin has a program in place to assist homeowners in getting their water tested for lead, and is offering free lead testing for homes with lead service lines. To arrange to get your water tested, please contact the City of Dauphin at 204-622-3202.

     Residents in other communities who wish to have their water tested should refer to the Manitoba fact sheet on Lead in Drinking Water and contact their water provide to see if a program is in place to assist with testing.

     Where lead levels are high, homeowners are advised to utilize a NSF-certified filter for lead removal or alternate appropriate water. This is particularly important for those who have children in the home or if children are planned.

For more information see:

  • Manitoba fact sheet on Lead in Drinking Water.
  • City of Dauphin website with information on how you can test for lead in your home or business’ drinking water. It also provides detailed information regarding water filter options.
  • Health Canada’s Final Human Health State of the Science Report on Lead 2013
  • Additional health questions can be directed to Health Links toll-free at 1-888-315-9257.

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