This fact sheet provides answers to the most commonly asked questions about lead in drinking water. If you have a question that is not addressed, please call 3-1-1 (TTY: 613-580-2401).
Lead and drinking water
Q: Is there lead in Ottawa's drinking water supply?
A: Drinking water supplied by the City is lead-free. However small amounts of lead can dissolve into drinking water during contact with plumbing materials such as lead pipes, brass fixtures, and lead solder in the homes of residents. Average lead concentrations in Ottawa’s tap water are well below the Health Canada target of 10 ppb (parts per billion) and are as follows:
- 0 ppb leaving water treatment plants
- 0 ppb for tap water in the majority of Ottawa homes (85%)
- 1.5 - 3.5 ppb in homes with lead service pipes
In order to monitor lead levels in Ottawa, City staff test water samples from 100 homes supplied by lead service pipes. On very rare occasions, some homes experience lead levels higher than 10 ppb. For example, during 2015 testing, only 4 out of 222 samples had lead levels higher than 10 ppb. Typically these levels are found in properties with service lines supplying their home. These homeowners are notified immediately and provided with practical advice for reducing lead in their tap water in addition to further water quality testing.
Q: What is the current limit for lead in drinking water?
A: Health Canada and the province of Ontario have established a maximum concentration for lead in drinking water of 10 parts per billion (ppb). This concentration aims to protect infants, young children and children in-utero who are most at risk of exposure to lead. Due to increasing concerns about negative health effects in children, the proposed maximum concentration has been lowered to 5 ppb for drinking water.
Q: Should I be concerned about exposure to lead in drinking water?
A: Exposure to small amounts of lead can be harmful to human health, especially for infants, young children and children in-utero. Lead is present in several environmental sources including soil, dust, food, air, and drinking water. Generally, household dust and food represent the highest lead exposure for young children. Although the lead contribution from tap water is generally low, it can be significant in some homes with lead service pipes.
Q: Is lead a concern in my children’s school or day nursery?
A: All schools and day nurseries in Ontario are required to flush plumbing and test water for lead on an annual basis. Ottawa Public Health works with these operators to ensure any problems detected are resolved and they comply with the Ontario Drinking Water Standards for lead in drinking water. More information is available on the Ontario MOECC (Ministry of Environment and Climate Change) website.
Q: If the tap water lead concentration is below the maximum allowed concentration, why is the City of Ottawa evaluating different treatment options?
A: To meet possible changes in future lead regulations, the City is evaluating different treatment processes, including the optimization of its current pH control process. Different treatment options are explored on an ongoing basis to ensure the most current and effective processes are in place to protect public health.
Q: Is bottled water lead free?
A: Bottled water comes from various sources and is subject to inspection by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency under the Food and Drugs Act. Most brands of bottled water have low or non-detectable concentrations of lead and the lead concentration is normally displayed on the bottle.Specific questions and concerns should be addressed to the company directly.
Q: How does lead enter drinking water?
A: There are no lead water mains in the City’s water distribution system, however lead service pipes connecting water mains to properties still exist in many homes built before 1960. Trace amounts of lead can dissolve into drinking water as it travels through lead pipes and through contact with household plumbing that contains brass or lead solder. Lead can also dissolve when water sits for lengthy periods (a few hours or more) in the lead service pipe or household plumbing.
Who is impacted?
Q: Who is impacted by lead in drinking water?
A: Approximately 30,000 homes in Ottawa constructed before 1960 and originally built with lead water service pipes. Residents may be impacted if lead service pipes have not been replaced.
Q: How do I know if I have a lead service pipe?
A: If your home was built after 1960, you do not have a lead service pipe. The best way to determine if a service pipe is lead or copper is to scratch the pipe with sandpaper to expose the bare metal. Lead pipes are dull grey in colour and are easily scratched by a hard object. Copper pipes are red-brown and corroded portions may show a green deposit. The water pipe servicing your home should be located in the basement. A water quality test can also indicate if lead service pipes are present in your home.
Q: What is a water service pipe?
A: A water service pipe connects a building to a municipal water main. Property owners are responsible for the pipe up to their property line and the City owns and maintains the pipe from the property line to the water main.
Q: Are commercial and multi-residential properties impacted?
A: No. Lead is not a suitable material for larger diameter pipes used in large buildings and has therefore not been used. Stronger materials such as copper, iron, or plastic are typically used to supply water to these buildings.
Q: Who is responsible for replacing water service pipes?
A: Property owners are responsible for maintaining the pipe up to their property line and the City maintains from the property line to the water main. Whenever a water main is replaced or upgraded, the City replaces the public portion of lead service line with copper.
Property owners are encouraged to take advantage of the Lead Pipe Replacement program if their home was constructed prior to 1960. If the water service on private property is made from lead, residents can choose to replace it at their cost, and the City in turn will replace the public portion of the service pipe at the City’s cost. The cost to the property owner is generally between $2,000 to $4,000. These estimates do not include the removal and salvage of items such as furniture and fixtures, gardens, landscaping, decks, porches and interior work or finishes and the repair or replacement of these items upon the completion of the water service replacement.
Q: What is the City doing to reduce the risk of exposure to lead?
A: Before treated water enters the distribution system, the City adjusts the pH to minimize the amount of lead and other metals that can dissolve into tap water. To meet future regulations, the City is evaluating alternative treatment options that will further reduce lead concentrations and protect water mains. The City also monitors tap water lead concentrations in older homes through an extensive water quality testing program.
Q: Why do I have lead in my drinking water if I have copper pipes and no lead water service?
A: Lead may be present in solder used to join copper pipes and may also be present in brass fittings and plumbing fixtures. However, lead contributions from brass and lead solder are typically quite low in the range of 1 ppb or less.
What can impacted residents do?
Q: I live in a home with lead plumbing, what should I do?
A: Concerned residents in homes with lead plumbing can:
- Run their tap for approximately 2 minutes to flush stagnant water sitting in their service pipe prior to cooking or drinking (cost of water would be approximately 2 cents for 2-min tap flushing).
- Contact the City at 3-1-1 to have their tap water tested for lead (no charge for this).
- Use an in-home filter designed to remove lead from tap water that is used for drinking and cooking.
- Take advantage of the Lead Pipe Replacement program – a cost sharing program whereby the City covers the cost of replacing the public portion of the lead service pipe and the resident pays for the private portion with the ability to repay over time.
Q: Who can I call to test my water?
A: Contact the City of Ottawa at 3-1-1 (TTY: 613-580-2401) to have your tap water tested – there is no cost for this service.
Q: Will my home water filter remove lead from drinking water?
A: A pitcher-style filter will reduce lead levels in your drinking water by about 90%. It is recommended that any point-of-use filter unit be certified to meet the appropriate NSF/ANSI Standard 53 for the removal of lead. This information can be found on the label. To completely remove lead, the use of a reverse osmosis or distillation treatment system may be required.
Q: Will boiling water remove the lead?
A: No, boiling your water does not remove lead. If boiled, the lead concentration of the water can actually increase slightly as the water evaporates.
Q: If I have lead service pipes, is it safe to wash dishes, clothing and shower?
A: Yes. Residue on clothing and dishes will not impact your health. Your skin will not absorb lead during bathing or showering.
Q: Who do I call if I have questions or concerns about water quality?
A: Contact the City of Ottawa at 3-1-1 (TTY: 613-580-2401) if you require additional information or have questions about lead in Ottawa’s drinking water. You can also visit Health Canada's website for more information on lead and human health.