Lead Service Pipes in McMaster Student Houses

Kate O'Melia
November 18, 2021
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

C/O Ainsley Thurgood

The City of Hamilton warns students their residence may have lead service pipes via letter

By: Kate O’Melia, News Staff Writer 

Students living in houses built before 1955 in Hamilton might be getting a letter from the City of Hamilton warning them about lead in their private water service pipe. 

The City of Hamilton is aware there are approximately 20,000 homes with lead pipes in Hamilton currently. Lead can be dangerous for a number of reasons, including health effects such as reduced cognition, increased blood pressure and renal dysfunction. Since this was not known when many of Hamilton's older houses were built, it was used in pipes until 1955 and in the solder for the pipes’ connections up to the 1990s. Unfortunately, some of these may include McMaster University student houses.

One household in the Westdale area received a letter from the City of Hamilton in early September, during McMaster’s Welcome Week, warning that they had a lead or unknown private water service pipe entering their house. 

Mac student Trevor Whitesell said his house received the letter right after moving in to start their second year. Since receiving the letter on Sept. 7, he and his roommates have been more cautious with their water intake. 

"I don't want to risk it . . . Small amounts [of lead] can be harmful, so I'm pretty cautious about it. I think we just got a Brita the other day [to] make sure we're not drinking it. But other than that, we just drink bottled water instead. For showering and brushing your teeth with the water, what else can you really do?" said Whitesell. 

Their service pipe was not confirmed to be lead, but because the house was built prior to 1955, it was suggested that the residents identify the type of pipe supplying water to protect themselves from possible toxic lead exposure.

“The private portion of this pipe is the responsibility of the homeowner,” stated the letter. 

Since the lines installed are on private property, it is up to the homeowner to check for any lead and replace service pipes if needed.

This isn’t the first time Mac students have had run-ins with lead pipes. 

In May of 2020, a Spotted At Mac post was made stating that the City of Hamilton had confirmed their house in the Emerson area had lead pipes and warned other students to check their houses for lead pipes.

Usually, the city would arrange for a Water Distribution Operator to come into homes to check for lead pipes, but COVID-19 regulations make this impossible. For now, the city is asking residents to conduct the inspection using a visual and/or scratch test on their own by following a video tutorial.

In addition to this online tutorial, the city is offering virtual inspections. Residents can also choose to send in water samples for testing instead of or in addition to the scratch test. Any water sample tested by the city should contain levels of lead under 10 micrograms per litre to be deemed safe for drinking.

A Tap Water Lead Levels map made in 2008 by the City of Hamilton shows that there are also many houses throughout Hamilton that contain some traces of lead, but at levels deemed safe enough for drinking. These homes can be identified as the green dots on the map which contain under 10 micrograms of lead per litre. 

If a residence is inspected and found to have lead pipes, the homeowner must replace it at their own expense and schedule a date with the city for a replacement of the public portion of the pipe. The city does allow for applications to a $2,500 loan transferred to the homeowner’s water bill. 

However, to qualify for this loan, the existing pipe needs to be substantially composed of lead. Additionally, replacing lead pipes can be difficult and costly even if the loan is granted.

Whitesell and his roommates are worried that their landlord will not want to address the possible lead exposure in the household because of how costly this might be. Students facing similar circumstances may feel the same way.

Currently, the City of Hamilton estimates that it will take approximately 25 to 40 years to replace all the private water service pipes containing lead. 

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