Lax drinking water standards put Canadians at risk

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Image from Wikipedia
Image from Wikipedia

Toronto – Canada’s drinking water standards continue to lag behind international benchmarks and are at risk of falling even farther behind, according to the findings of a new investigative report, Waterproof: Standards, released by Ecojustice.

“There is no reason Canadians shouldn’t have the safest drinking water the world,” said Ecojustice staff lawyer and report co-author Randy Christensen. “But regulatory efforts required to create, implement and maintain strong, world-class standards are sorely lacking.”

The report examined the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality — which determine the maximum allowable level of contaminants in water considered safe for human use and consumption — and compared them with corresponding frameworks in the United States, European Union, and Australia, as well as standards recommended by the World Health Organization.

The findings are troubling. While Canada has, or is tied for, the strongest standard in 24 instances, it has, or is tied for, the weakest standard for 27 substances. And in 105 other cases, Canada has no standard where at least one other comparison country does.

For instance, the standard for the commonly used pesticide 2,4-D is 1.5-3 times stronger in other countries than it is in Canada. Long-term exposure to this substance, a common herbicide that can be detected in surface water across Canada, has been linked to liver, kidney and nervous system damage.

In another troubling case, Canada has no standard for styrene, a possible human carcinogen, even though it is regulated by the United States, Australia and the World Health Organization.

Also noteworthy is the fact that Canada has no microbiological water treatment standard— advanced filtration or equivalent technology — that provides protection, in addition to the microbiological water quality standards, from waterborne pathogens, such as E.coli.

“Access to clean, safe drinking water is human health and rights issue,” said Ecojustice senior scientist and report co-author Dr. Elaine MacDonald. “Without a concerted effort to improve Canada’s deficient water standards, legislators will continue to put the health of Canadians at risk and perpetuate inequity in water quality across the country, particularly in rural and First Nations communities.”

Ecojustice has identified five recommendations to address the systemic problems contributing to Canada’s weak standards and failure to update them in a timely way:

  1. Review problem standards immediately
  2. Incorporate health-based objectives
  3. Introduce treatment standards
  4. Introduce a special review policy
  5. Create a national approach to drinking water standards

These recommendations — explained in further detail in Waterproof: Standards — outline a pragmatic approach to strengthening Canada’s standards and bringing them up to par in the short-term.

“Strong, world-class standards will prevent unnecessary deaths and illnesses, reduce health care expenses and improve the quality of life of all Canadians,” Christensen said.

“It’s time for all levels of government to take action and renew their commitment to protecting our country’s most precious natural resource: drinking water.”

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