The United States Environmental Protection Agency states that lead is the most serious environmental health hazard for children under six years of age in the United States. Lead poisoning has been dubbed the “silent epidemic” because of its increased prevalence worldwide. According to recent statistics, about three to four million young children suffer from lead poisoning. This type of poisoning is more common among children under six years of age, affecting one in every six children. One major problem is that most parents are unaware that their child has lead poisoning, and often it is too late when they have their child tested.
Building owners are responsible for the pipes and water within their premises, so what do homeowners with newborn children and modest incomes do about replacing lead service lines or otherwise dealing with water quality problems in their households? What role can and should the federal government play in this national public health issue?
In Hamilton, we began dealing with lead exceedances in the municipal drinking water 10 years ago. I was a councillor in one of the old wards, the downtown ward, of the city. Public works was at first reluctant to increase the number of household tap tests beyond what was required by the province. The reason we found out about it is quite interesting. It was because London, Ontario, was found to have lead exceedances. So the province decided this could be a broader issue; let's test many municipalities. They did 28 or more municipalities, including Hamilton. The information was gathered but never revealed until a newspaper article in the London Free Press, in which I found out, as the downtown councillor, that Hamilton had lead exceedances.
The province required the municipalities to do tests to see what the pervasiveness of this problem was in the city. I said to the public works department, “I want to do more tests in my downtown area, because these are older areas and people of lower incomes”. The answer was, “How much money do you want to spend, because the more we test, the more we find”. I said, “Okay, let's test the blood lead levels of the children in the affected areas”. A groundbreaking study of about 700 children was carried out, and sure enough, those children in those specific areas did have higher lead levels, significantly higher than the average across the population. That's a very important part and I'll come back to that later.
Now that we know we have lots of lead pipes and lead exceedances in the drinking water of households, what do people do when they are of modest income and they find out that it's $1,500 to $2,000 to take that lead pipe out? To assist those families, we created a loan program that allowed them to remove the lead service line on their property, paid for on their water bill, repaid over several years; I think 10 years is the program. In Hamilton, we are replacing 500 to 1,000 lead service lines in the city as a result of this program. It's also being done in London, Guelph, and Ottawa. Staff in Toronto recommended the plan to Toronto council and that council turned the plan down, referred to as one of those fiascos and why don't they just go to the bank and get a loan.
While most provinces abide by the Canadian maximum allowable concentration for lead presence, 10 micrograms per litre, unfortunately we still hear of cities and towns across Canada discovering heightened levels of lead in the tap water of buildings, homes, and schools.
In Surrey, B.C., six elementary schools have been shown to have up to eight times the allowable lead concentration in their drinking water. Unfortunately, the comments by the experts around that problem are as follows: If parents are concerned about their child's development, they're worried about other sources of lead—for example, through paint or toys. I think continuing to monitor the situation is probably the best thing we can do at this point and provide support to both the school districts and education to the public in general.
Parents can be reassured that, at the population level, there's no evidence that British Columbia blood levels are affecting their health. Well, that's fine at the population level, across the board, everybody, rich areas, poor areas. But when you go to the poorer areas, children are ingesting lead, which could affect the development of their brain.
In Flint, Michigan, more than 1,700 residents are suing the United States government's Environmental Protection Agency for its mismanagement of the water crisis after extremely high levels of lead were leaching into the drinking water. The lawsuit states that the EPA failed to warn citizens of the dangers of consuming lead and failed to ensure that state and local authorities were accurately addressing the crisis on the ground. The plaintiffs are seeking $722 million in damages. The law suit states:
This case involves a major failure on all levels of government to protect the health and safety of the public. Local, state and federal agencies and employees, working individually and at times in concert with each other, mismanaged this environmental catastrophe.
This case can serve as a lesson on the importance of our governments having a unified approach to removing lead pipes and improving drinking water quality across the country. The federal government must work with its provincial, territorial, municipal, and indigenous partners in unison.
Lead toxicity has been studied at great length through blood level tests. The Canadian guideline is currently 10 milligrams per litre, which seems minute, but Health Canada, the World Health Organization, and many other toxicity experts agree that no amount of lead consumption is safe and severe health effects are occurring as a result.
Understanding this, Health Canada's federal-provincial-territorial committee on drinking water is planning to update the Canadian drinking water guidelines for lead. A document has been released online and is open for public consultation until March 15. This consultation began in January. I brought my private member's motion forward in November of last year. In January, Health Canada said let's look at reducing the maximum acceptable concentration that we have at the moment.
I'm not suggesting that this committee study the health effects, but I think we could probably hear some testimony to reaffirm the seriousness of the situation. My hoped-for outcome for this study would be that the committee call in expert witnesses to provide a report to the House containing a list of current best practices across Canada for removing lead lines and treating drinking water; recommendations on how best practices could be expanded; recommendations for how the federal government could play a role in the process, such as by creating awareness and advocacy programs for the dangers of lead consumption; utilizing current funding programs or creating new ones; and working with its provincial, territorial, municipal, and indigenous partners to create a national strategy for combatting lead in drinking water.
That's the basis of my private member's bill, and I'd be happy to answer any questions.
I honestly would have to say that most of the consultation took place in the 10 years that I was on city council. A lot of consultation took place at that time. Subsequent to that, McMaster University did a special and very exhaustive program for the City of Hamilton. I consulted with McMaster University on the basis of the information they brought forward, which was a very comprehensive review of strategies throughout the country and proposals for the City of Hamilton.
To answer your question, a lot of this consultation took place previously, but as a result of that, I revisited some of those experts. I talked to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and they were of course interested in moving forward. I think they would want to hear from the committee on what specific roles and specific questions the committee might ask of them to move this issue forward.
The Canadian Water Quality Association is another group that we consulted with. They have done extensive work in this area.
In fact, we have a number of organizations that are prepared to come forward, including the City of Hamilton's finance department and public works department, which could give testimony. I asked them about this a month or so ago in regard to how well the plan is working and whether evidence could be brought forward to a committee.
That's a general overview of the consultation I had.
My review of the situation occurred because of the crisis in Flint, Michigan, and then the subsequent refusal by the City of Toronto to accept a very useful and workable loan program.
The problem became obvious to me as I began to do a simple Google search: “Canada lead drinking water”. Month after month through this past year, I came up with cities across Canada—Brandon, Manitoba, and Kamloops, British Columbia, and so on—that are discovering what we found 10 years ago in Hamilton and worked very quickly and efficiently to address.
It's obvious that there's no coherent management of what many experts consider a crisis, that is, the exposure of young children to lead in their drinking water, especially those in marginal circumstances, such as families who have to rent older premises, for instance, premises likely built before 1975 for sure. Many in our older cities were built in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
These people were unwittingly exposing their children to a lifetime of diminished expectations. The other thing that has happened over the past five years since our Hamilton experience took place is some very intensive research into exactly how this lead is affecting the brains of these young children. I took that all in a bundle.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Mr. Bratina, thank you for being here with us this morning.
I would first say that you have not said very much to convince me of the relevance of the issue you are defending. I had the opportunity of speaking on this during the first hour of debate in the House. However, I would like you to explain why it would be relevant for the committee to undertake a more exhaustive study of this issue.
If I may I would like to compare your motion and the text of the amended motion. The first motion reads as follows:
[...] the government should address the growing concerns of lead pipes and water quality [...] to advocate and establish possible solutions to these issues [...]
That wording really gave me the impression that we would initiate some action. But for reasons that escape me, the wording was amended by the parliamentary secretary of the Government House Leader, and now reads as follows:
[...] the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities should undertake a study [...] to discuss options for addressing lead drinking water service lines [...]
We are very far here from the action verbs in the first motion. There is a certain overlap in some things, such as the idea of a study on the presence of lead, and the efforts made by governments.
What I understand from the amended version, in short, is that we are now talking about doing an inventory rather than a real study to find solutions to the problems you have raised.
Do you think it is relevant to use the resources of the committee to draw up an inventory? That inventory could be done by a researcher or even by an employee of the Library of Parliament, and then the committee could examine potential solutions.
I appreciate your comments.
I would have preferred the original, unamended motion, but this is not a matter anymore of gathering information, inventories of.... Somebody is going to have to do that, but that's not what I see as the resources of this committee in addressing this problem.
First of all, because I brought the motion forward—whether it's happenstance or serendipity—Health Canada is reviewing the maximum acceptable concentration now, looking to cut it by half.
Last night, I was sitting after a busy day of attending other conversations about this subject, and Peter Mansbridge on The National said that next week they're going to look at the Flint lead drinking water situation, a special study by the CBC. It's very topical.
I think the most power this committee will have is not expending a lot of resources over many months of testimony, but highlighting the fact that it is an issue that is affecting young, newborn children, especially poorer people, all across the country.
Not only did the CBC pick up on this, but Arizona State University's school of journalism—our student friends may be interested in this because it's called the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism—decided that the biggest story on an environmental issue that they could take for the students to dig into was drinking water, as a result of Flint.
That school extended an invitation, and other schools that will be participating are Dublin City University in Ireland, George Washington University in south California, Louisiana State, Syracuse, Alabama, Oklahoma, and the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. All these young people are going to be examining the problem of lead in municipal water supplies.
There is a very simple task, I think, that this committee has: to see whether the funding that is being made available to communities with regard to their infrastructure is being applied in a focused way to assist communities and households in solving this problem.
It's a good point, and I think it's a conversation that the committee can have in a simple, efficient, and fast way to get at the question whether resources are adequate and whether they're properly placed provincially and municipally.
The provinces have frankly let me down, when a medical officer of health is saying, “Let's just keep an eye on the situation” and “Go see your doctor.” The evidence is so strong of the dangers to certain people.
I've had people say to me, “I grew up in a house with lead pipes and I'm fine.”
I say, “Maybe. Did your mother breastfeed you?”, because it's baby formula with leaded water that is a very high ingestive point of this neurotoxin.
On the other hand, although you may be smart, perhaps you might have been a genius. It's like people saying, “I smoke and I didn't get sick, so let's just forget about the anti-smoking stuff.” There's a real problem; it's going to affect children for their entire lives. There's so much research.
The top research on this is from Simon Fraser University, by an American who came from Cincinnati who did studies that found that incarcerated people in the Ohio state penal system had exceedances of lead in their blood and the behaviours that are caused by changes to the prefrontal lobe of the brain, where all of the humanity of a person sits. We can't just say, “They should know about it.”
I think this committee could very quickly bring the right attention and seek the funding available or that otherwise should be created to address this. I would hate to leave my opportunity as a member of Parliament without having asked my colleagues to take a look at this and see what we can do about it.
What we know is that, as referred to earlier by Mr. Hardie, in the old days of leaded gasoline.... I can remember when my dad filled the car up, because I am old enough, I loved that smell. It probably affected me, so all of my shortcomings I'm blaming on leaded gasoline.
What we know, however, is that the graph of blood lead levels in North America from the 1970s to now shows them to have gone down dramatically. If you want to say, “It's gone down dramatically, so why are we here today?”, the fact is that for certain population cohorts, especially the newborn, there's a completely opposite graph developing.
What bothers one is that you can get certain sorts of diseases or you can fall and break your arm, but once the prefrontal lobe of the brain is diminished in size, it stays that way, because lead fools it into thinking it's something good. It's not, and it screws up the way the brain develops, and that's the end of it.
If you want to say, “It's only children at age one, so how many of them are there in Canada, and is this a problem we should be dealing with?”, I would say yes, it is.
Madam Chair, like my colleague Alain Rayes earlier, I would like to greet Mr. Trudel and the master's students from ENAP. Some of them live in my riding, and I thank them for being here today.
Dear colleague, my objective is not to say that your motion is not important; on the contrary, it is very important. I wonder, however, how we will be able to deal with this request concerning lead in drinking water, since it does not fall under federal jurisdiction. Just like Quebec, all the provinces have jurisdiction in this area. So how are we going to oblige a province such as Quebec to respect the results of our study?
Secondly, I would like to go back to something you said in English.
Expand on that “simple task”. What exactly is the simple task that you want this committee to focus on? We know it's of medical concern. We understand that, but how can we zero in? How can we come out and have a better understanding of the scope so we know what to challenge and what to dedicate our study to? I have to admit, it's very large, so we need to narrow it down. What exactly do you wish this committee to pay attention to?
I would like the committee to look at two things. One is the potential for class action lawsuits, such as is happening right now in Flint, Michigan, due to the indifference or inactivity, inadequacies of the United States government's Environmental Protection Agency.
First of all, we're considering what role we have, but in the exact specifics of what you're talking about, the City of Toronto decided not to accept the staff recommendation of creating a fund. Because we have infrastructure money made available, I would think the committee could consider ways that the government could allow a municipality to draw on those funds, to create a revolving loan fund, which wouldn't impact on their revenue, let's say, on a smaller community or even a larger one, like Toronto. If they were concerned about fraud or fiascos, and so on, there could perhaps be a guarantee, a backstop from the federal government saying if Toronto put a loan program in place, the federal government would certainly make sure that it functioned well.
I'm not sure of the direct answer to that, but money is available. Generally, as far as I know, communities have not been focusing their efforts on using that money to address this problem. Perhaps this infrastructure committee could resolve that or there may be a recommendation that we can't find a way to do that, but I would not want to, once again, leave my few days that I have in Parliament saying that's somebody else's problem, knowing what I know through the Hamilton experience and observing problems all across the country.
I had three. They're not fun.
Having said that, are you familiar with the Ontario source water protection that was initiated to municipalities that allowed resources for not only—I guess not municipalities, but for homes to secure their source or septics close to wells, close to where you draw your source from as a municipality, to go in and clean up our own outlier problems that we had and identify them?
I look at that role as municipal leaders. It was a five-year committee, and I believe it stretched to six years, seven years, and it's still sitting, but we as municipalities have a lot on our plates. I know you, as mayor, 66% of the services you provide...and you look at your water plants, you look at blue-green algae coming at us, and you look at this. There is lots on a municipality's back, so I commend you in being the face behind this.
You could look at this and say it's a municipal or provincial issue, but as leaders, it's a Canadian issue for older municipalities. I was a mayor of an older municipality; this does scare me. I know a lot of newer municipalities...and I think the Ontario building code was taken out in that range, maybe in 1975.
Do you have any idea of the percentage of houses in Hamilton that have lead contamination or lead in their property lines?
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I would like to go back to the questions I asked earlier. I think we all agree on the importance of this dossier which relates to public health. That said, I am still trying to determine what we could do. You are a Liberal member. This issue affects municipalities and provinces. In fact, in Quebec, all of the data has been compiled. The issue here is the quality of water. Like me, some members here were once mayors. Our objective is to provide a good quality of life to citizens. We are directly responsible for that. If we do not do that, we will be held publicly responsible and citizens will make a decision subsequently.
This involves service lines that belong to municipalities, and pipes that are on residents' land, and so are private property. We are talking either about residents, or the owners of private buildings. The government has launched an ambitious infrastructure program. All it has to do is include its conditions with transfer payments to the provinces. I am still trying to see what the committee can do to help things go forward.
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities does not seem to want to make this a priority. It is in contact with the representatives of municipalities everywhere. If this were an urgent issue for it, it would be the first to act. I imagine that we will hear from lawyers tomorrow morning regarding class action suits against locations that are aware of the problem but are doing nothing to support their citizens.
Could you tell me what you expect from us that your government cannot already do in the context of its next budget, which it will table in three weeks?
I have to go back to your preamble. Your preamble is not really correct, because this is an issue that is in many minds an old issue from days gone by. We have other problems now; we have new problems.
What I've been telling you, and I'll repeat it, is that there has been new information over the last five to 10 years of the devastating effects on the developing brains of children.
In my case, I had to fight to get the public works department to address the issue in a broader way:
“Well, here's what the province said, and that's all we're doing”.
“Well, let's do more.”
“Well I don't want to spend the money on that.”
“Okay, let's check the blood lead levels then.”
And so, one thing after another. Now I'm reading that in other parts of Canada, medical officers of health are saying, “Well, we'll keep an eye on it.”
I guarantee you that—depending on how this matter is dealt with in the national media, such as the feature that I understand is coming forward on The National next week, which I saw advertised last night—it'll change the perspective on this.
The FCM has tons of problems before them. I think what we need to do is ask them how they think they can incorporate our values into their organization.
I will reformulate the question.
I think we all agree with what you have been saying, with the facts. No one is challenging them. That said, the research done by my team indicates that a fair number of municipalities that are aware of the issue have already begun to act. Others are recalcitrant or delinquent; I don't know what term one should use in this case. The buildings, for instance the schools, fall under provincial jurisdiction. The provinces also build the hospitals. The municipal service lines are paid for through government programs. I am still trying to see what more we can do, aside from what the Liberal government can do, as it has an ambitious infrastructure program.
I would tend to advise you to go and see the and the to suggest that they impose conditions or launch an awareness program through Health Canada in order to apprise all municipalities of this problem. They are in a position to let them know that they have work to do. This remains a matter of provincial and municipal jurisdiction. We simply need to find a way of informing these people.
Can you tell me clearly what you expect from the committee, so that I may promote it, so that a study can be done and so that you can move this forward?
For the time being, I am still trying to understand.
If you did conduct a study, the study would bring recommendations to the federal government, which would bring awareness. I'm not exactly sure how you can fine-tune the infrastructure programs to address this problem specifically, but I would think that in your conversations, you could come up with a resolution one way or another on that.
Also, and I said this earlier, if you take the old lead pipe out but leave the lead service lines connected, you have a worse situation than you did when you started. Depending on water chemistry, an old lead main line and lead service pipes may not introduce that much lead into a household, but if you change the water chemistry, if you change this pipe to another pipe, and then you have lead...and then you change something again. So who's to coordinate it? Is that something that's different in St. John's, Newfoundland and Kamloops, B.C.? I don't think it is.
This government may eventually face the same problem that the U.S. federal government is facing in Flint, which is class action. Did nobody think about this? Does nobody care about this? What do we do about this?
We hear that, “Well, it's the municipalities.” I can't accept that. I think there is a role for this committee to play, because what I'm talking about is infrastructure problems in Canadian municipalities, and there's money available. How does it get directed there? I don't know. I'd like to see it, but smarter heads than mine will have to determine that.
The meeting has been reconvened.
The first item for us to discuss with the committee is Mr. Bratina's motion and what the thoughts of the committee are concerning our next direction with it. I think he has flagged an important issue that especially our former mayors at the table and the rest of us are interested in. The question becomes just what we can do, given that we have a heavy agenda ahead of us.
If we were to go into an in-depth study, we could be doing this for a year, but I'm not sure that's what Mr. Bratina is asking for. I think he's asking for some attention specifically to be paid to this issue, to raise, as Mr. Rayes and Mr. Fraser said, the awareness of the issue—it seems that many people know it's an issue—and then to get the municipalities to figure out, together with the federal government possibly, how to deal with the subject.
Who would like to speak to this issue first?
I want to support my colleague's comments. I was one of the first to discuss this in the House and to support Mr. Bratina's motion. I too think there is a problem. I was once a mayor, and my municipality had to deal with the issue of lead in drinking water. The issue was raised, and we solved part of the problem.
At this time, the government has an opportunity to make the required amounts eligible. I don't see what other recommendation our committee could make that would really change anything in the short or medium term. I do not believe that our committee studying this motion further would contribute much to attaining Mr. Bratina's objective.
Mr. Bratina says he is very worried about the health of young mothers and children who are consuming lead in drinking water. The federal government could intervene to change things and force municipalities and provinces to act in the health area. This would advance Mr. Bratina's cause considerably.
I believe I understood that he wanted to make this his cause before he concludes his term in Parliament. It is a good thing when members invest in a cause and want to change things to improve our society, especially when it concerns people's health. I think we could help Mr. Bratina more if we recommended that the Standing Committee on Health examine the health impacts of lead in drinking water. That committee could then intervene and bring in some regulations, so that the municipalities and provinces would have to do something, which our committee cannot do currently.
I agree with Ms. Block on this. I want to help Mr. Bratina, I fully approve of what he is doing, but we simply have to help him find the right path to attain the objective in his motion.
I agree with what other members have said.
I don't know how we should proceed, but I suggest that we provide the member with a written reply in which we say that we are sensitive to the problem, that we are fully aware of it, and that in order to help him we recommend that the question be referred to the Standing Committee on Health. Indeed, that committee will be in a better position than we are to make the necessary recommendations to the government. We would also recommend that he continue his awareness- raising work with the various departments. This will give Mr. Bratina the additional tools he needs to continue his work.
Our committee is aware of the problem. We do not deny it at all, quite the opposite. However, we think that this is a matter of health, first and foremost. In fact, whenever we asked him what we could do, he always brought us back to issues involving people's health. I felt that he was one of those people who are aware of the problem and its consequences on children and human beings, but who feel somewhat powerless. This really is a health issue.
For the rest, honestly, it is up to the government to decide if it wants to invest and include criteria in its programs, as it did for the fuel tax. As I said earlier, for those who don't know, the municipalities in Quebec have to use the funds collected through the fuel tax to resolve water quality issues first. If they do not do that, they cannot use the money for other purposes. They have to make that a priority under the agreement negotiated between the federal government and the province.
On the Quebec Department of Environment website, you can see all of the work that has been done on this, and to encourage the municipalities to correct things quickly. Perhaps we could refer to that.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I support my colleague's remarks. Our study could instead attempt to determine which persons within the federal government are in a position to intervene. I would prefer that we know who has the power to act. For instance, are there people in the Department of Health who could do something? All of this would help to properly orient the study.
In the House, the motion to conduct this study was accepted unanimously by the members. We all voted in favour of motion M-69, which states that we are to undertake a study. We simply want to determine how to do that. That is important, and we all agree.
However, rather than hearing municipal spokespersons tell us what we already know, why don't we target federal representatives who can really intervene in this file, whether they are with the Department of the Environment or with public health? These people could tell us whether they can act in such or such an area. I think that would be the best way to move Mr. Bratina's motion forward.
No, because it will have to fit in with all of the other things we have on our agenda.
When we come back we'll be dealing with the NPA study. We'll have to fit this in when we can, because we have other things that take priority.
Bill is the next thing coming to us that we need to discuss, so I'm not quite sure when we will fit this in.
We have plenty of time, so we can hold off, I believe, until the appropriate time when we need to get that information.
Okay, that takes care of that.
Is everybody okay then with the direction we're taking with the Bratina motion?