Hundreds of thousands of Canadians have been unwittingly exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water, according to a yearlong investigation conducted by more than 120 journalists. The investigation found that contamination in several cities was consistently higher than it ever was in Flint, Michigan, where lead-contaminated water sparked a public health crisis.
The media consortium that conducted the investigation, which included reporters from The Associated Press and the Institute for Investigative Journalism at Concordia University in Montreal, measured lead exposure in 11 cities across Canada. Out of 12,000 tests conducted since 2014, the group found that 33% exceeded Canada’s national safety guideline of 5 parts per billion; 18% exceeded the U.S. limit of 15 ppb.
“I’m surprised,” leading Canadian water safety researcher Bruce Lanphear told The Associated Press. “These are quite high given the kind of attention that has been given to Flint, Michigan, as having such extreme problems.”
Canada is one of the only developed countries in the world that does not have a nationwide drinking water standard. Even countries that struggle to provide safe drinking water have established acceptable lead levels: India’s is 10 ppb and Mexico and Egypt’s are 5 ppb, according to those nations’ government websites.
Sarah Rana, 18, was one of tens of thousands of students who weren’t alerted when her high school found lead levels above national guidelines in dozens of water samples, the highest at 140 ppb. She found out on her own after looking at reports online.
“I was getting poisoned for four years and did not know about it,” she told AP. “As a student, I think I should be told.”
Studies have shown that even low levels of lead exposure can affect a child’s IQ and their ability to focus. Children who are younger than seven and pregnant women are most at risk from lead exposure, which can damage brains and kidneys. Yet the consortium’s investigation found day cares and schools are not tested regularly. And when they are tested, those results are also not public.
The media consortium filed more than 700 FOIA requests and collected more than 79,000 water test results. But the findings are neither comprehensive nor an indication of overall drinking water quality in Canada.
“Because there is no federal oversight, everybody does what they want,” engineering professor Michèle Prévost, who quit working on a government study of school drinking water in frustration over the lack of lead testing, told AP. “Most provinces ignore this very serious problem.”