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The problem with lead pipes

More than 30 years ago, lead-contaminated soil in a south-east Toronto neighbourhood was daily news. A nearby metal fabricating plant (long since closed) was the culprit and the remedial action was pretty drastic: the household soil was removed truckload by truckload.

Today that area is gentrified and the industrial plants are long gone, but people worry more than ever about environmental toxins.

Health impact
In the case of lead, there's reason for concern because of its serious effect on health. At higher levels lead exposure can cause damage to the nervous system (its primary target) resulting in brain damage. Even at lower levels of exposure, lead effects in exposed children can include kidney damage, increases in blood pressure and future risk of osteoporosis.

"There really is no safe level of exposure where we can say there is absolutely no health effect," says Dr. Howard Shapiro, associate medical officer of health for the city of Toronto. "As the level becomes lower, the severity of adverse health effects become less and less."

However, where drinking water is concerned, says Shapiro, people need to remember that it is "the lowest source of lead, somewhere around 10 to 20 per cent of someone's lead exposure." He also notes that individuals vary in how their bodies handle certain metals. Test numbers are, he says, "difficult to interpret."

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For homeowners, water pipes are the main concern and those living in older homes have the most cause to worry unless their plumbing has been upgraded to copper or plastic piping.

If you're concerned about the possibility of lead in your home, read on for a series of questions and answers that will help you unearth and address any hidden hazards:

Q: What's considered a safe level of lead in household water?

A: Health Canada sets the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality for lead content in drinking water at a maximum concentration of 10 parts per billion (ppb) measured at the tap.

Q: How do I know if I have lead pipes in my home?

A: Homes built before the mid-1950s are assumed to have lead water services. Between then and approximately 1990, you are likely looking at some lead in fixtures or soldering. Homes build after 1989 are unlikely to have any of these sources.

"Homeowners can check by looking at pipes under the sink -- if they are grey (metallic), scrape the surface and if they expose a bright silver colour, they are lead," says Mike Morin, a plumbing expert with Home Depot Canada.

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-- Posted July 25, 2012
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