Lead in Calgary’s Drinking Water

On November 4, 2019, after a year of study and research by over 120 journalists as part of a national
investigative journalism project, Canadians learned that our tap water may not be as safe to drink as we
assumed. Lead pipes in new construction were banned nationwide in 1975, making homes built before
that time particularly vulnerable. However, it did not solve the problem of preexisting lead service lines
in municipalities, and lead solder continued to be used on pipes until 1986. Samples from certain
Canadian cities tested were found to have lead levels comparable or above those in American cities that
have garnered media coverage for their tainted water.


Lead has been present in water since the invention of plumbing. This malleable metal also served other purposes in ancient times. Lead was used for cookware, cosmetics, coins, contraception, as a sweetener for food and drink, and as a medium for artistic expression. Lead production declined greatly after the fall of the Roman Empire. However, its use endured over the years. In Europe during the Middle Ages, lead was used for roofing, piping, stained glass, and as the prime subject of alchemical experiments hoping to yield pure gold. During the Renaissance, printing presses, cosmetics, and bullets all required the use of lead. And when European colonizers settled in the New World, lead mining and smelting began almost immediately. In the recent past, lead has been used most notably in paint, and the last major human exposure to lead was the addition of tetraethyllead to gasoline as an anti-knocking agent in 1921. The use of leaded gasoline in Canada was phased out by 1990, but continued to be used in race cars up until 2010. Lead is still widely used for car batteries, pigments, ammunition, cable sheathing, weights for lifting, weight belts for diving, lead crystal glass, radiation protection, and in some solders.


Throughout the ages it was widely known that lead was the cause of widespread ailments: lead has been used by humans for the past 6000 years, and the earliest written accounts of its toxicity have been discovered in Egyptian papyrus scrolls. Its health effects are dire. Prolonged exposure can cause damage to the nervous system, kidneys, and heart, as well as reduce fertility. The International Agency for Research on Cancer determined that inorganic lead is probably carcinogenic to humans. Exposure to lead is also correlated with higher incidents of violent crime. And unfortunately, children are most vulnerable to lead poisoning. Children below the age of six are at a higher risk because they sometimes ingest non-food items, put objects and their hands in their mouths, their bodies absorb lead at a higher rate, and their brains are developing quickly. Lead poisoning symptoms in children can include lower intelligence and smaller size in comparison to their peers, behavioural problems, learning issues, lack of energy, and loss of appetite. Symptoms in adults can include headaches, muscle pain and weakness, memory problems, abdominal pain, and changes in behaviour and/or personality. Even low levels of lead exposure can increase the risk of these negative health outcomes.


The simplest ways to find out whether your tap water contains lead would be to reach out to your municipality and inquire about testing, or hire an independent lab to gather a sample and provide you with test results. Homes built before 1976 are particularly susceptible, and the use of lead solder on pipes continued until 1986, making homes constructed before then vulnerable as well.


A water filter is the quickest and most cost-effective solution. These can range from a water filter jug to a simple faucet attachment, to a pricier reverse-osmosis filtration system. The filter must be certified under the NSF Standard 53 or 58 if it is expected to remove lead from tap water. However, lead filters are not tested beyond a concentration level of 150ppb. If water tests at a higher level than that, a reverse-osmosis filtration system would be a more effective option. Replacing filters when necessary is the number one way to ensure that lead continues to be filtered out, keeping drinking water safe for consumption.

Rather than maintaining some type of water filtration system, many homeowners may prefer a more permanent solution. This would be to have the underground lead service line on their property replaced. Some municipalities have established programs where residents can replace their portion of the service line at the same time that the main service lines are replaced, for a reduced cost. If only a portion of the lead service line is replaced, lead issues can continue. It could also be beneficial to upgrade in-home plumbing materials to ensure that all parts are lead-free. Peace of mind is priceless when it comes to our own health and that of our loved ones (including our pets, who are also affected by lead). If you have discovered that your water is contaminated and are looking for solutions, Tara Construction would be glad to work with you on finding reasonable and accessible options. Call us today to find out more at (403) 991-2813.