Ancient Romans had problems with lead pipes (and it might have helped the demise of their civilization), but over 2,000 years later they’re still in use in Toronto to transport water. And if you’re a Toronto resident, it might be affecting your health.

If your home or apartment was built was before the mid 1950s, or you live in an apartment building with fewer than three floors, you might be at risk of exposure to high levels of lead in your drinking water. Many older homes have lead water pipes which can easily leach traces of this toxic heavy metal into the water.

Lead is a potent neuro-toxin linked to high blood pressure and kidney problems in adults. And there is no safe blood lead level in children. Lead exposure can cause children “to display more aggressive and delinquent behaviour” and a number of studies have linked lead exposure to increases in violent crime. In fact, one study found that “the reduction in childhood lead exposure in the late 1970s and early 1980s is responsible for significant declines of violent crime in the 1990s”.

Luckily, the City of Toronto is taking this seriously and has a program to assist Torontonians in reducing their exposure by replacing lead pipes owned by the city. Toronto City Council is also currently considering further measures to assist homeowners with lead pipe replacement.

If you live in Toronto, call 311 to register for a free water testing kit from Toronto Public Health to test your water for lead, whether you rent or own your home. Once you have returned your water sample, Public Health will contact you to let you know the results. If your result is above 10 ppb, you have several options to protect the health of yourself and your family.

However, the best way to reduce your exposure is by replacing your lead pipes. Renters may want to speak with the property owner or manager about having pipes replaced. If you own your home, you should arrange to have the lead pipes replaced. Replacing lead pipes involves two steps: replacing the water pipes on your property (the pipe that runs from the property line to the meter) and replacing the city pipe that runs from the watermain to the property line. The city has a program in place to replace up to 1,500 connecting pipes when the homeowner replaces the pipe under their property.

If you are a homeowner, you can hire your own contractor to replace the pipe on your property or contact the city’s contractor to have both sides of the pipes replaced at the same time. The city will cover the cost of replacing the municipal pipes but you must pay the cost of replacing the pipes on your property; at a cost of  around $3000.

If you are waiting to have your pipes replaced, you can contact the City of Toronto to see if you qualify for a temporary free faucet filter; this is particularly beneficial for households with pregnant women or small children.

The cost can be a barrier for some home owners. That’s why this Monday, August 25, 2014, the City of Toronto Council will vote on whether to offer a  loan program to help ease the financial burden on homeowners.

For more information on replacing your pipes, check here.

For renters, only your landlord can authorize pipe replacements but you can still get your water tested. If your water has high levels of lead, let your landlord know that you are concerned about the health impacts of lead and that there is a program to easily replace the pipes.

Replacing lead pipes can potentially improve property values and will enable the landlord to advertise the property as meeting safety standards for water and health.

To learn more about protecting yourself and your family, sign up for our toxics and water e-newsletters.

You can download Environmental Defence’s step-by-step guide to help you determine if your tap water exceeds recommended lead levels, and what you can do to make sure your drinking water is safe for yourself and your family.