Sarnia’s next round of lead testing is moving outdoors.
City staff is sampling water from outdoor water taps this summer as they focus on the remaining 5,000 residences suspected of having potentially high levels of the heavy metal.
Some 2,000 homes were sampled last year in Sarnia’s “lead zone,” an area bounded by Murphy Road, Highway 402, the St. Clair River and St. Andrew Street and dominated by buildings built pre-1950s.
The 10-minute procedure usually involves taking a water sample from the kitchen faucet. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, staff is drawing samples instead from outdoor taps, said city engineer David Jackson.
“It avoids that direct interaction with the homeowner.”
The Environment Ministry has verified such water samples are representative of a residence’s plumbing and don’t detract from the quality of testing.
Just 2% of the homes and businesses tested during the first year of the $3.5-million program had lead levels above the Ontario drinking water standard.
City Hall was encouraged by that number, saying it makes it realistic to remove all of the lead services, which is the ultimate goal.
The city has also eliminated about 1,000 houses from the original 8,000-home list, Jackson said.
Homeowners are being sent letters at least a week in advance. Only front yard taps will be tested, and homeowners are asked to make the area accessible to staff.
The tap used will be sanitized before and after the procedure, Jackson added.
Lead is known to contaminate water by leaching from lead pipes, plumbing fixtures and the lead soldering once used in connections.
If lead levels are high, the city is able to determine if the source of the contamination is on the private or public side of the waterline.
If the lead source is found inside the property line, residents can face repairs in the thousands of dollars, Jackson said.
“It isn’t cheap if it’s under the driveway… or under your porch,” he said. “Part of our plan this year is, once we get a firmer grasp of how many are out there, we are going to go to council to present some sort of assistance program the city can provide.”
Loan and grant programs exist in other centres to help homeowners repair costs, he said.
“Right now we’re looking at what other cities have done, what’s been successful, and we’re going to match that up with how many we have.”
Sarnia provides free filters to any home or business in which testing has confirmed high lead levels in tap water.
If residents don’t want their water tested, they can get in touch with the city, Jackson said, but added most misunderstandings or fears are cleared up with a conversation.