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OPINION: Getting the lead out of tap water a costly issue for everyone

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Susan MacFarlane

Susan MacFarlane

Did you know the ancient Romans used lead to make water pipes, and that plumbers today get their job title from the Latin word plumbum, meaning lead?

Which makes it all the more frustrating that thousands of years later Sarnia has just approved a three-year, $3.5-million program to sample and remove lead from our water pipes.

This program includes water sampling for lead in homes built before 1955, removing select lead services on the municipal-owned portion of the property, and distributing filters to remove lead from the drinking water as required.

I believe the city should offer interest-free loans to homeowners to encourage them to remove their portion of the lead service. This could be paid off as part of their tax bill over a 10-year period.

After the three years, the city will then decide whether to aggressively remove lead services (over 15 years) from the older part of the city, or embark on a corrosion control program combined with a less aggressive lead replacement program (over 40-50 years).

Corrosion control would mean adding a chemical, in a quantity that is safe to drink, at the water treatment plant to reduce corrosion of the lead from the pipe and trap lead on the interior walls of the pipe so it doesn’t enter the drinking water.

Some argue that adding a chemical at the water treatment plant is a cheaper option in the short term, but there are other issues to consider.

I believe this is a Band-Aid solution, because we know the lead services still need to be removed. Also, once we start adding the chemical it must be continued forever, with the additional material and maintenance costs.

The other concern is how effective will corrosion control be? For example, the City of Windsor implemented corrosion control and they are still aggressively removing lead from their water system based on a legal opinion received.

So what can residents of older homes do to ensure Sarnia’s lead sampling and removal program is successful?

Owners of homes built before 1955 should fully participate in the lead sampling program. The information will allow lead services to be removed by the city as strategically as possible and provide information useful to you should you want to sell your home later.

If the city replaces the municipal portion of the lead line at your home, you should replace your portion as well, otherwise the lead levels entering your home from the disturbed pipe may increase for months after due to this partial service replacement.

Even though lead in water mains has been around since 3,000 B.C., the goal now is for Sarnia to get the lead out!

Susan MacFarlane is an Environmental Engineer and former general manager of Lambton Area Water Supply System.

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