The City of Winnipeg said it’s already received well over 300 requests to have water sampled for lead content, after stricter new federal guidelines prompted it to offer free tests for homes that may have lead plumbing.

Residents who contact 311 can still be added to the waitlist for water testing, The city set a goal of 200 volunteer tests, required by Manitoba’s Office of Drinking Water.

The testing will be conducted at the homes of volunteers across the city, where there are known lead service lines, to ensure a representative sample.

This type of lead testing will happen every year, and city officials say results will be shared with homeowners and the public.

Thousands of homes with lead pipes

There are thousands of homes in Winnipeg with lead pipes or plumbing parts — most built before 1950, says the City of Winnipeg’s environmental standards manager, Renee Grosselle.

“There are also homes between 1950 and 1989 that could have plumbing fixtures or they can have lead solder, so they could also have some lead in their homes,” she said.

This week the City of Winnipeg is notifying 23,000 homeowners with the offer for testing, because the maximum allowable lead concentration in drinking water changed Canada-wide in March.

“The water quality hasn’t changed, it’s just the limits that have changed,” Grosselle said.

The limit went from 0.01 milligrams per litre to 0.005.

Grosselle said the city also takes precautions to prevent lead exposure through water.

“We do add a chemical at the water treatment plant, orthophosphate, that does also coat pipes, lead pipes, that prevents the leaching,” she said.

Developmental delays due to long-term exposure

Dr. Lisa Richards, a medical officer of health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, said those most at-risk are pregnant women and children.

She said long-term, low-level lead exposure can cause developmental delays impacting speech, language and other milestones.

Richards said it can also lead to reduced IQ and learning and behaviour difficulties.

However, to put the risk into perspective, Richards said everyone is exposed in a variety of locations in our environment, in air, soil, and food in addition to drinking water. She said even household dust and consumer products are also sources as well.

“The health risk associated with lead in drinking water is low,” she said, but added there is no known safe level of exposure.

Preventing potential harm

“There is evidence emerging to suggest that lead in drinking water is more harmful than we initially realized,” Richards said. “But the good news is there’s lots of options for precautions that we can take to reduce our lead exposure.”

The most practical way, she says, is to flush your water -- meaning run the tap for 10 minutes before drinking it.

“You can fill a jug after you’ve flushed it and put it in the fridge and use that over the day, for example.”

You can also consider replacing lead pipes, like Marcel Soulodre did.

He made the best of a bad situation in spring, by replacing the lead service line to his home after sewer pipes collapsed in front of his home.

“Dealing with a catastrophe is always difficult,” he said. “But the upside is that I know now that there’s no lead going to be in my water.”