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No safe chronic exposure levels to lead in drinking water, research shows

Lead 'ubiquitous' in our environment, but not chronic exposure: Martiquet on Pemberton water

When Nadia Samer, a health sciences major at Simon Fraser University, moved to Pemberton with her father last year, she noticed something about the water in her home immediately — namely, the colour.

"Within three weeks of residing there I called the municipality questioning about lead toxicity, because all my water was coming through dark and murky and tasted awful," Samer said.

The water left behind residue when left to evaporate, Samer said.

Her personal concerns are now being echoed by others in the community after a Village of Pemberton (VOP) water study earlier this month found that the water in some houses had higher-than-acceptable levels of lead due to leaching from the pipes as a result of low-pH water.

Coincidentally, Samer happened to be studying under one of the leading researchers on the effects of lead in drinking water — Dr. Bruce Lanphear.

Lanphear's research has been published in numerous reputable medical journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine.

In short, his work concludes that blood-lead concentrations — even at low levels — are linked to lower IQ scores in kids aged three to five, and the associated declines in IQ are in fact greater at lower blood-lead concentrations.

He's been outspoken on the issue of lead in drinking water for years.

Reached by email while on vacation, Lanphear said he can't comment on the situation in Pemberton without specific data, but said that chronic exposure to water lead levels below 10 parts-per-billion (ppb) are consequential.

"The concern is not overt poisoning," Lanphear wrote.


Out of 20 homes tested by the Village of Pemberton (VOP) this month —17 in the VOP and three in Pemberton North — 12 of them came back with elevated lead levels.

In some cases, lead concentrations were as high as six times the Maximum Acceptable Concentration prescribed in the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality.

Research has shown that lead in drinking water can cause a number of adverse health effects, particularly for children, infants and unborn children.

The VOP supplies about 1,300 homes with water.

The first round of testing was done without flushing the pipes first. When Pique asked to see the test results, the VOP said it isn't releasing them until after the second round of testing comes back on March 25.

The VOP's water is tested routinely at the source, and the village said it meets all guidelines for Canadian drinking water.

Though governments have made considerable efforts to eliminate exposures to lead in recent decades, humans are still exposed to it in various ways.

As with almost any drinking water in the country, there is a very small amount of lead in Pemberton's water, said Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) chief medical officer Dr. Paul Martiquet — but flushing your pipes until the water runs cold will flush out any elevated lead levels caused by corroded pipe fittings and return the lead content to background normal.

"You don't want to drink lead, period, but it's ubiquitous in our environment," Martiquet said.

"You can't get away from it. So you want to decrease your exposure and you want to decrease your intake in it."

The concern would be chronic exposure — if someone were drinking the first-flush, 60-ppb water all day, he said.

Since the news came out, Martiquet said he's also checked in with local physicians, who have raised no concerns of lead poisoning.

"If there is a patient that comes in to a physician's office that has serious symptoms of lead toxicity, blood-lead levels will be taken and they will be paid for by our heath care system and reported to the public if they're high," he said, adding that people can get tested through their local physicians, though he's not advocating for it.

"I have to reinforce the message: The water is safe to drink," Martiquet said. "It's certain homes in the morning, at the first flush, that it's not safe to drink. And you can't put a blanket statement on it."


The precise scope of the problem is unclear, but according to local plumbers, there's a good chance nearly every home in Pemberton uses fittings with trace amounts of lead.

"I can tell you with certainty the answer: all of them. Every one of them," said Robert Szachury of Turbo Plumbing and Heating.

"They just stopped manufacturing brass fittings with lead in December of 2014."

Szachury has been outspoken about the corrosion issues since he first came across the problem 15 years ago.

"Here's the thing: If our water was fixed, we wouldn't be talking about this. Our aggressive water leaches out the metal. So if our water was repaired — if our water was neutral — neutral water doesn't react to fittings, so that's where it gets maddening for me. They could have fixed this 15 years ago."

Doug Harwood, owner of Spearhead Plumbing and Heating, offered a similar estimate.

"I would say every home," Harwood said.

"Even today with what they call the 'zero lead law' that has gone out, they allow .25-per-cent lead in today's brass fittings. So it's not lead free."

Harwood said he's been working in the valley for 30 years, and the rules around lead in plumbing have been getting tighter all the time.

"When I first came to Whistler in 1989 we were using lead-based solder to put together copper pipes. And then that changed to just a five-per-cent lead, and then it changed to a zero-lead maybe 15 years ago," Harwood said.

The law changed to lead-free in 2014, "but there's a definition of lead-free," he added. "Brass fittings, for example, got .25 per cent of allowable lead, and that's considered lead-free."

But Martiquet said he does not recommend people replace all the piping in their house.

"There's a simple solution," he said. "You run your taps until the water is cold."


Richelle Kennedy says she has lived in various residences in Pemberton over the past decade — including a year and a half at the Creekside Village strata, which has had its own issues with corroded plumbing dating as far back as 2007.

At a community meeting in Pemberton on March 19, Kennedy revealed that a 2014 heavy metals urine test ordered by her naturopath found three times the normal levels of lead.

A different doctor originally diagnosed her with MS, but when the news came out about the elevated lead levels, it raised some questions for Kennedy.

"Is it because of the water? Is it something else? Are there other people who have health issues that are unexplained?" Kennedy said at the meeting.

"My doctor wouldn't give me a test. I had to seek out my own path to find out what's wrong with me, and now that I have the results, and now this has come up, it's just led to a lot of questions."

Dr. Kurt Samer — an anesthesiologist with more than 40 years experience working in medicine (and Nadia's father) — got up to voice some concerns of his own at the community meeting.

In a follow up phone call, he distilled his concerns down to three main points: lead is toxic to the nervous system, there is no safe exposure limit to it, and children are especially susceptible.

"So it is really imperative for children to avoid anything that is a neurotoxin, and we now know there is no safe limit. Any amount of lead in the body is not good for you," Samer said, adding that he also takes issue with the message put out by officials.

"It really bothers me that there's always this pushback, and deny and mollify, when the shit hits the fan," he said.

"And if they do that, the shit really hits the fan afterwards when all the facts come out."

The VOP has scheduled a town hall meeting focused on the issue for April 5 at the community centre.

For more information on Pemberton's water head to