Canadians have every reason to believe that the water that runs from their taps is beyond reproach: abundant, clean and safe. But the “Tainted Water” investigation, an unprecedented national collaboration of universities and news organizations, exposed the risks faced by millions of Canadians whose drinking water contains elevated levels of lead, a powerful, insidious neurotoxin, and other contaminants.
An analysis revealed that in the cities of Montreal, Regina, Moose Jaw, Saskatoon and Prince Rupert, along with parts of Gatineau, lead levels in water were comparable to or higher than they were in Flint, Michigan during its crisis in 2015. Further reporting uncovered a staggering lack of transparency by municipal and provincial governments, with widespread failures to warn residents about lead levels and the associated health risks. In some cases, municipal workers were found to be relying on discredited testing methods that provided misleadingly low results. The investigation found that the federal government was choosing not to intervene with mandatory rules and standards. The investigation also focused on schools, where researchers have repeatedly warned governments for decades that older drinking fountains have been contaminating children’s drinking water with lead — and children are particularly susceptible to the health effects of the neurotoxin, which is associated with learning disabilities. Data from the freedom-of-information requests revealed that schools and daycares from Nova Scotia to British Columbia had measured levels of lead in their drinking water up to tens of thousands of times the national standard, but outside Ontario, school authorities rarely shared results with parents or warned them about what had been found. Internal documents from provincial offices in Alberta and Quebec included discussions about research showing that levels were high enough that the IQs of children and toddlers could be permanently lowered, but no public alert had been issued. In Alberta, schools had not been directed to test for the neurotoxin despite these findings.
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Initial data compilation and analysis was done principally by the consortium over a period of eight months. Our analyses were then sent for validation and comment to leading academics in Canada and the U.S. whose work on lead in drinking water is widely respected — in most cases, they had advised the Canadian cities in question about how to reduce lead levels. Further validation and checking was completed by the participating media partners. Finally, the analyses were sent to municipal and provincial authorities for comment.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Municipal test data was obtained from individual municipalities and in a few cases, from provincial departments regulating drinking water quality. In total, the consortium obtained the results of 79,000 tests, and our freedom-of-information requests cost CAN$9,000.
The biggest obstacles we faced were a lack of data and poor-quality data — many municipalities do not test at all, and the Province of Quebec had for decades employed a testing method that was designed to measure the minimum level of residential exposure, rather than the maximum. This method has been widely discredited and in the United States, authorities have faced charges for taking similar actions that would lower results.
To gather reliable data for our database, the consortium engaged in a groundbreaking project to empower hundreds of concerned citizens to test their own water. Student journalists used municipal property records to identify older homes that were likely to have lead pipes. Coached by the students and member journalists, residents in 32 cities across the country collected their own samples, which were then taken by the team to accredited commercial laboratories for analysis. The consortium spent more than CAN$50,000 on water testing at commercial laboratories.
In all, we built two databases — of the 79,000 tests gathered by municipal workers and our own — plus repositories of survey results, interviews and documents. More than 220 hours of interview audio was transcribed, at a cost of nearly CAN$20,000.
What can others learn from this project?
The consortium of universities and media companies that came together to research, produce and publish “Tainted Water” was conceived as a uniquely Canadian solution to the challenges posed by the nation’s vast distances and scattered subscriber bases, compounded by the financial pressures facing the news industry. The size of the consortium, regional differences in approaches to reporting and wide variety in experience of members were all obstacles that we overcame together, in weekly national meetings, two editorial gatherings, and tens of thousands of messages and calls. But one of the biggest obstacles that student journalists and professionals faced was disbelief — that there could be contaminants in Canada’s famously pure water and that trusted municipal officials would withhold such information. The nationwide effort fostered deep public engagement, as the massive citizen science project provided hundreds of residents with the information they needed to make good decisions for their families and as voters. At the heart of the issue is Canada’s weak freedom-of-information laws — our nation has lagged behind most other developed countries, ranking 55th on the Centre for Law and Democracy’s scale, published in 2018 with Access Info Europe. Marc Edwards, a researcher from Virginia Tech who is widely credited with uncovering the crisis in Flint, told the Regina Leader-Post that the city’s elevated lead levels “would be publicly disclosed in the US.” He continued, “It’s worse than Flint, and you saw how people were criticized for not disclosing that problem in Flint.” Only a collaboration among many of the country’s leading media companies, working in concert with smaller regional news organizations, could have uncovered the scale of this hidden problem. This was an unprecedented learning experience for more than 100 journalism students, demonstrating to professional reporters and students what can be accomplished when journalists work together in the