Thousands of Nova Scotians at risk of lead exposure from wells

Darlene Arnold shifts uncomfortably in her seat as she takes off her reading glasses. 

In her hands, she holds the results from chemical tests of the tap water in her home in East Jeddore, a small fishing village less than an hour’s drive east of Halifax. 

Three samples were taken from the kitchen faucet this summer. All three contained potentially dangerous levels of lead. 

She’s been unknowingly feeding her family with food washed and cooked in contaminated water.

“Probably explains why I got high blood pressure now. Holy smokes,” the 59-year-old utters in disbelief, viewing the results with reporters for the very first time. 

Lead is a neurotoxin associated with increased incidence of high blood pressure, renal dysfunction, decreased cognitive performance and other complications. It’s particularly dangerous for children, linked to ADHD, lowered IQ and developmental disorders. 

Like roughly 440,000 Nova Scotians — nearly half the province’s residents — Arnold draws her tap water from a well. The lead in her water isn’t unique either. Sampling data collected as part of a national investigation by media outlets and universities across Canada — including Global News, Star Halifax and the University of King’s College — reveals hundreds of thousands of Canadians are exposed to lead in their tap water.

In Nova Scotia, the findings reveal widespread, and sometimes dramatic, exceedances of lead amid lax government oversight of private well water and a lack of public awareness about the health risks.

According to the World Health Organization, there’s no level of lead that’s safe for human consumption. Health Canada identifies 5 parts per billion (ppb) as its maximum acceptable concentration in drinking water, recognizing that “health effects of lead may occur even at low concentrations.”

Arnold’s well water contained lead levels above that guideline, as high as 7.1 ppb. In July, she took three samples from her tap — the first right after the water had been stagnant in the pipes overnight, and the other two after the water had been allowed to run for 45 seconds and two minutes, respectively. 

The investigation had those samples tested at a lab in Bedford, N.S. Lead levels above the federal guideline — 6.0, 6.8 and 7.1 ppb — were detected across all three samples.

Arnold and her family haven’t been drinking the water due to a salty taste born of dredging in the nearby harbour. They’ve been cooking with it instead, unaware that boiling lead-contaminated water actually causes the lead to become more concentrated, and therefore dangerous.

Arnold’s concerned about her six-year-old grandson, Bentley, whom she cares for in the very same house she grew up in. 

From potatoes to pasta, “everything I cook goes in that water,” she told reporters nervously. “I’ve got a baby here, a child.”

Three out of six tests at Arnold’s neighbours’ houses also revealed elevated lead levels, reaching as high at 14 ppb, or nearly three times the Health Canada standard. 

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