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Guest column: Are Canadian water officials using the denial playbook?

Windsor Star by Jane McArthur 24 November 2019


Water officials in Canada now seem to be using the PR playbook for denial and manufacture of doubt. Responding to the findings of a disturbing investigation into the lead in Canadian tap water released on November 4, 2019, public officials seem to be taking their cues from the tobacco, oil, asbestos, and plastics industries as they downplay serious public health concerns. Discrediting science as a political strategy goes against our values in Windsor-Essex where building relationships between citizens, their governments and public institutions is a stated mission.

A year-long, in-depth investigation by 120 journalists at nine universities and 10 media organizations included more than 12,000 tests across eleven Canadian cities. More than one-third of test results showed lead levels exceeding the national guideline for lead of five parts per billion.  There is no scientific uncertainty about the powerful adverse effects of lead exposure, especially to children. Adverse effects, which are often not evident until years later, can occur even at extremely low levels.

Based on years of scientific study, we know there is no safe blood level for children. Lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems and is particularly harmful to young children. Even minute exposures can have devastating and permanent effects, including cognitive impairment, attention deficit and hyperactivity, decreased attention span, hearing impairment, behavioural problems and seizures.

Exposure to lead is associated with decreased libido, depression, mood changes, headache, diminished cognitive performance, reduced IQ scores, diminished hand dexterity, diminished reaction time, diminished visual-motor performance, dizziness, fatigue, lethargy, forgetfulness, impaired concentration, impotence, increased nervousness, irritability, malaise, paresthesia, weakness and more. Imagine these effects and the negative impact they have on an individual’s quality of life. On a broader scale, picture the effects on the community in everyday life and across the lifespan. Denial and doubt are not the answer. The Centres for Disease Control in the U.S. calls for primary prevention of lead exposure, to reduce and eliminate dangerous lead sources before children are exposed, and treatment for those who have already been exposed.

Canadians are being allowed to bear a health risk from exposure to lead in our water with potentially serious consequences. The facts of the health impacts from lead were revealed in 2014 when the Flint water crisis was widely publicized. Many exposed children of Flint are left with permanent neurological deficits. When faced with the comparisons of the lead exceedance to that of Flint, MI, Canadian water officials responded by suggesting it was “comparing apples and oranges.” They “reject the comparison” or “don’t feel it is a fair comparison.”

Perhaps even more disturbing is the response here in Windsor — where we had the highest number of exceedances at 289 — that “we’re struggling with the comparison” and don’t “want people to lose faith in the water they’re taking out of the tap.” This is not just a matter of comparison, and it is most certainly not a matter of faith.  It is a matter of what science tells us about the health effects of exposure to lead. Lead in our water is a serious public health threat that has been known for decades.

The current downplaying of the danger by some city officials follow a well-used political script that is meant to assuage public concern while ignoring the responsibility to take remedial action. We are told not to worry because the city and the school system will keep everyone’s best interests in mind. What is required is not propaganda from the playbook of denial, but a coordinated effort by the municipal, provincial and federal governments to immediately enact a comprehensive plan that ensures that the lead standard is not exceeded anywhere in Canada, including First Nations communities.

Hard questions need to be asked, including whether the current regulations are enough. In 2009, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment set a public health goal level of 0.2 ppb for lead in drinking water. Instead of creating doubt about the findings exceeding the 5 ppb guideline, and fuelling uncertainty as a distraction tactic, we should all be asking: How can we do more? How can we do better?

No one should have to fear, let alone face the consequences of drinking a glass of water.

Jane E. McArthur is a member of WOW (Windsor-Essex on Watch), a local collaborative acting on environment, health and justice.