Diana Cohen is a resident of Calgary’s Crescent Heights neighbourhood, and has lived there since buying a house in the community in December 2018. After moving in, she became pregnant with her daughter, who was born nearly a year later in November 2019.
“We wanted to be close to downtown,” Cohen says. “We were actually looking for a house that would accommodate a piano in the basement … which was hard to do in the inner city. So, when we saw this place, we just got it.”
Cohen serves as concertmaster for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, and splits her time between Calgary and Cleveland, Ohio. In September 2019, upon returning to Calgary after being away throughout the summer, she received a letter from the city that had been sent in the spring.
She was surprised to find out her home had a public lead service line (LSL) delivering water from the city’s water mains — especially because she was pregnant while living there.
“I freaked out,” Cohen says. “I called the city immediately, and I think they actually told me that they weren’t even sure if they could check our pipes, because I think it was the end of their cycle.”
Cohen is referring here to the city’s free annual tap water sampling program, which is promoted within its water quality information letters. Every year since 2008, these letters have been mailed to residents with known or suspected LSLs that are publicly owned. Crescent Heights has among the highest concentration of publicly-owned LSLs in Calgary.
However, if Cohen had moved into the Crescent Heights home just a year later, she would not have been informed about the possibility of lead in her drinking water.
Citing the COVID-19 pandemic, the city confirms it did not send out water quality information letters in 2020. This means homeowners and renters will not receive communications in the mail relating to lead until 2021.
“Due to COVID-19, the delivery of many city programs and services have been altered to ensure citizen and staff safety,” Sherri Zickefoose, communications advisor for the City of Calgary, said in a statement.
The city’s water sampling program was also halted due to the pandemic. This program typically runs between May and September, when temperatures are warmest. Alberta Environment & Parks guidelines require warm outdoor temperatures when water samples are taken, as lead levels are highest at this point. Tap water sampling requires an in-home visit to complete.
“Water Services has limited our in-home visits to essential services only. Sending out letters was delayed in order to align with this modified work practice,” Zickefoose said.
The letters — which were last delivered in June of 2019 — detail how lead might get into residents’ tap water, promote the water sampling program and offer residents a chance to participate. They state that approximately 550 households in Calgary have lead service pipes connecting their household plumbing to the city’s water system.
“The city proactively works with homeowners whose property has been identified as having public lead service pipes. We mail notices to these residents each year and we offer these services to ensure high quality drinking water,” reads a statement on the city’s website.
Oki. We are grateful to live and work in the traditional territories of the Niitsita’pi and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta, which includes the Siksika, Piikani, Kainai, Tsuut’ina and the Iyarhe Nakoda. The Blackfoot name of this place where the Bow River meets the Elbow River is Moh’kins’tsis, which we now call Calgary. The city is also home to the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3.
Consumption of lead in drinking water is especially harmful to children — possible effects include lower IQ and behavioral problems — as well as pregnant women, but can also be harmful to adults and anyone who is exposed to it. There is no safe amount of lead consumption.
Cohen’s water was tested by the city, and her results — 9.4 micrograms per litre as an average of four consecutive samples — exceeded Health Canada’s guidelines for lead in drinking water, which allow a maximum level of 5 micrograms per litre.
“I was extremely panicked when I got the results, because I saw that they were elevated. And the first thing they said is, ‘it’s especially bad for pregnant women.’”
Cohen’s subsequent blood test results for lead came back normal, and she began to use a lead-certified tap filter to help mitigate future consumption through drinking water.
The public LSL leading to her property was replaced in November 2020, at no cost to her. While Cohen didn’t need to pay to replace her lead connection, because it was city-owned, other residents with private LSLs would have to. Through the city’s new accelerated lead removal program, there are two options for homeowner repayment: an estimated cost of $3,500 per private property, either paid upfront or through property tax over 15 years, with no interest.
When she was told that the city would not be sending out water quality information letters in 2020, Cohen described the decision as “lousy,” saying that the presence of an LSL ought to be known, or assumed, based on the age of a property. The original public service line at Cohen’s property was installed in 1943.
Cohen says she “definitely would not have bought this house” if she knew part of her water line was made of lead.
“I think people have the right to know for sure, because pregnant women — and most people — probably wouldn’t be drinking their tap water if they knew it was contaminated with lead.”
The city’s letters — and its communication with residents known to be connected to public LSLs as a whole — were the subject of previous reporting by a consortium of journalists, as part of a national investigation into the prevalence of lead in the drinking water of Canadian municipalities.
Many residents of the central Calgary communities of Crescent Heights and Rosedale said at the time that the letters they received did not convey a sense of urgency regarding the issue at hand, or provide information about the health risks of lead consumption.
The city is currently working on its accelerated lead service replacement program, part of which includes “determining which letters to residents will be sent in 2021,” according to Zickefoose. Cohen has not had her tap water tested by the city since September 2019.
While on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city will resume sending out letters and conducting tap water sampling for properties built before 1950 “when it is safe to enter homes.”
About Watered Down
Watered Down, produced by the Calgary Journal, is a follow-up series to 2019’s Tainted Water investigation, which coordinated reporting at universities and media companies from across the country. The investigation found that many Canadian municipalities — including Calgary — were not tackling the issue of lead aggressively.
In Calgary, the Mount Royal University Journalism and Broadcast Media Studies department teamed up with reporters from Global News and the Star Network. Their investigation showed that the drinking water of some Calgary residents exceeded national guidelines for lead. It also found that the City of Calgary did not have complete records of the materials used to construct public water service lines and that the city had not adequately communicated with residents about the risks of lead consumption.
The Tainted Water investigation is nominated for the Michener Award, Canada’s top journalism prize dedicated to “meritorious public service journalism,” which will be awarded on Dec. 10.
MRU investigative reporters: Noel Harper, Christian Kindrachuk
Faculty advisor/reporter: Janice Paskey
Calgary Journal managing editor: Archie McLean