This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you.
In Canada, hundreds of thousands of people have been living with high levels of lead in their drinking water, unbeknownst to them. In some cities, the contamination has exceeded the headline-grabbing lead levels in Flint, Michigan.
The revelation in Canada came from an investigation by a group of over 100 journalists from nine universities and ten media organizations, including the Associated Press and   the Institute for Investigative Journalism at Concordia University in Montreal. For over a year, the investigation tested drinking water in hundreds of homes and analyzed what the Associated Press called “thousands more previously undisclosed results.” It looked at lead exposure in 11 cities across Canada.
The findings: out of 12,000 tests since 2014, one-third exceeded Canada’s national safety guidelines of 5 parts lead per billion.
Communities with high lead levels range from rural Prince Rupert, a rugged town on the west coast, to the sleek and metropolitan Montreal. The journalists found that some schools and daycare facilities had lead levels high enough to pose health concerns for children.
Bruce Lanphear is a top water safety researcher in Canada. He focuses on the effects of lead exposure on the very young. He told the Associated Press he had not anticipated such high levels in his country. He said “These are quite high given the kind of attention that has been given to Flint, Michigan, as having such extreme problems. Even when I compare this to some of the other hotspots in the United States, like Newark, like Pittsburgh, the levels here are quite high.”
This was also a disturbing surprise to many residents who had participated in the research. According to the Associated Press, Canada has no national requirements to test for lead in drinking water. And if tests are made, residents are rarely alerted to  contamination. Sarah Rana, who lives in Oakville, told the AP that officials never informed her that they had found excessive lead in water samples from her high school. She had to find this out by looking at reports online.
“I was getting poisoned for four years and did not know about it,” she said. “As a student, I think I should be told.” It has long been known that even low levels of lead exposure can affect children’s intellectual and behavioral capacities. And yet, the Canadian investigation found that neither schools nor daycare centers are tested regularly. When they are tested, the results are not made public.
And even if residents are aware of the lead threat, they can’t control the causes that lie beyond their homes. Canadian authorities acknowledge that lead service pipes can be a problem, and they said they are working on that. Montreal’s mayor responded to the investigation by pledging to test 100,000 homes for lead and to accelerate pipe replacement.
The information leading to the lead disclosure was not easy to gather. The journalists filed over 700 Freedom of Information requests and took hundreds of samples of water from homes. In all, they collected close to 80,000 water test results. “But,” wrote the Associated Press, “the findings are neither comprehensive nor an indication of overall drinking water quality in Canada. That doesn’t exist.”
Canada is one of the only developed nations without a national drinking water standard for lead. India’s is 10 parts per billion, Mexico and Egypt’s are 5 parts per billion. The United States allows 15 parts per billion. Canada does not have a similar testing or notification policy, with one exception – that’s Ontario. Ontario shares a border with the U.S. at the Great Lakes, and posts its water testing data online.
Critics say that because there is no federal oversight of water quality in Canada, most of its provinces are free to ignore the problem. Because they set their own rules, their testing and treatment methods are inconsistent. Some don’t test the water at all, and few are taking measures to reduce lead levels.
In the east of Africa, devastating floods have displaced hundreds of thousands of people in South Sudan and Somalia, and aid agencies are working to cope with humanitarian needs that were acute even before the rains.
South Sudan has been swamped by more than three months of unprecedented rainfall. Over 900,000 people have been affected with disruption of basic services and mass displacements as homes and livelihoods were destroyed. Relief Web stated last week that even before the flooding, nearly two-thirds of the areas involved reported critical levels of malnutrition, especially among children and pregnant women. There is added fear that worsened conditions and contaminated water will cause a disease outbreak.
The government of South Sudan declared a state of emergency in numerous counties on October 26. The International Organization for Migration responded by increasing its efforts in the area. But it acknowledged that aid agencies are constrained by ruined roads and unusable airstrips. And, said the aid group, it is having to use supplies that  it was saving for the dry season later in the year. Those supplies will need to be replenished, it warned, to meet long-term humanitarian needs that will follow the floods.
In Somalia, more than half a million people are suffering from weeks of flooding, which has destroyed infrastructure and agriculture. The United Nations says that number includes over 200,000 children, and last week it called for decisive action to avoid the threat of malnutrition and disease. Aid agencies are at work, joined by the government and local communities. The major fear is the threat of waterborne disease.
East Africa’s rains have been amplified by a weather phenomenon that is similar to the El Nino phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean. It’s called the Indian Ocean Dipole, and some consider its effect on South Africa to be the most powerful since 2006.
In the United States, California’s electrical utilities are shutting off power to minimize further wildfires. But for many, no power means no water as well.   
The power outages are happening across the state, from Sonoma’s wine country to major cities like Los Angeles. Water suppliers are rushing to get water to homes, businesses, and firefighters. They are buying expensive generators and arranging for supplies of gasoline and diesel fuel to power them. And they are beseeching their customers to conserve, and be patient.
The El Dorado Irrigation District lies between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. It covers 220 square miles and serves 125,000 people. It needed 150 generators to keep the water going. The cost was $800,000, and that doesn’t include fuel. But it was able to avoid any interruptions to water, wastewater treatment, water recycling and hydroelectric power. That’s despite four outages over three weeks. The agency’s spokesman told Bloomberg News “We don’t want this to be the new normal. I don’t think anyone in California wants that, but right now it’s what we’ve got.”
As climate change threatens new norms, utilities are finding themselves in precarious positions. Last year’s Camp Fire in Paradise, which killed 86 people, has been blamed on California’s largest electric utility. Transmission lines belonging to Pacific Gas and Electric sparked the fire and the potential liability has forced it into bankruptcy. PG&E and other power providers are increasingly taking proactive measures, shutting down power in places where the wildfire forecasts are ominous. Erring on the side of caution in this way has its own costs. California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, said the power shutoffs put lives at risk, disrupt sewer function and in some cases deprive people of water. He called the situation “unacceptable,” and said “The entire system needs to be reimagined.”
The cost and logistics of backup systems adds a burden to maintaining infrastructure that is already old, inadequate, and underfunded. PG&E said it does not provide generators, but has spent the last two years coordinating with officials and agencies on ways to mitigate the effects of outages. It says that these outages could happen for the next ten years, and did not respond when asked if it planned to reimburse districts for costs related to backup power. As it is in bankruptcy, that is uncertain. Bloomberg News says the California Water Association has asked the state’s Public Utilities Commission to “consider the extraordinary costs in case of future fare increase requests.” It speculates that other utilities may pass these increases along to ratepayers. One utility district spokesperson in Oakland said her agency would do their best to get backup power costs reimbursed, but she wasn’t optimistic about the chances.
Power cutoffs stress big utilities, but they can cripple smaller water suppliers and paralyze private well owners. Smaller utilities don’t have the heft to commandeer scarce and expensive backup generators, or the staff to nurse them through 16 and 18-hour days.
Private well owners are even more vulnerable. Up to two million California residents have wells. They tend to be in rural areas where it’s prohibitive to extend municipal systems because there are fewer ratepayers to share the significant costs. People who depend on wells generally have lower incomes and are more likely to be people of color. They are less likely to speak fluent English, which impairs their ability to advocate for solutions.
Water expert Peter Gleick told the San Francisco Chronicle that many urban residents don’t realize how dependent rural communities are on domestic wells. He said “Power outages in rural areas sometimes completely cut off the water supply. Water is critical to us; much more fundamental than electricity.”
California senator Mike McGuire told the Chronicle that farmers also rely on wells, and their pumps need power. He said “This has taken an incredible toll on agricultural communities.”
This week, Circle of Blue continues its coverage of Legionnaires’ disease, an increasing danger in the United States.
America’s deadliest waterborne illness is a growing threat.
That illness is legionellosis. It’s most often heard of as Legionnaires’ disease, and is caused by Legionella bacteria. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that in 2018 there were nearly ten thousand reported cases of legionellosis. That is a 33 percent increase from the year before.
Legionella bacteria actually cause two illnesses, of which Legionnaires’ is the better known, and more feared. The other is Pontiac fever, which is similar to the flu. It’s the milder form of legionellosis, and much less common.
The vast majority of cases are Legionnaires’ disease, a severe respiratory illness that resembles pneumonia and kills about one in 11 people it infects.
Legionnaires’ disease was first identified four decades ago. It spreads at the intersection of the built and the natural environments. The illnesses is not contagious. It’s contracted by inhaling mist that is contaminated with the bacteria. The sources of water vapor linked to Legionnaires’ include rooftop cooling towers, hot tubs, showers, and ornamental fountains.
Two regions have the highest rates of infections in the country: the mid-Atlantic and the Great Lakes. Eight states accounted for over half the cases. They are Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Ohio reported twice the number of cases as California, even though Ohio’s population is roughly a quarter that of California’s. Nationwide, there were three reported cases for every 100,000 people. That ratio is more than six times higher than the reported rate in the early 2000s.
Legionellosis now ranks above tuberculosis and just behind hepatitis A. Hepatitis A cases are also soaring, due in part to drug use, more people experiencing homelessness, and associated unsanitary conditions.
As for legionellosis, health researchers say there is no single explanation for the steady rise in cases.
One risk factor is age, and the American population is getting older. The median age has risen nearly 10 years since 1970. People at higher risk for the disease include those over 50, smokers, and those with weakened immune systems.
The nation’s water delivery systems are also aging, and the bacteria can take root in organic matter that collects in corroded sections of pipe. Deteriorating infrastructure means that more pipes develop cracks and breaks, which can introduce unwanted bacteria into water systems.
A changing climate is another factor in legionellosis. Studies show a connection between periods of warm, wet weather and spikes in the number of cases. Late summer, in general, is the peak season for Legionnaires’ disease.
Efficiencies in building management and design may have the unintended side effect of promoting the illness. Energy conservation measures can put the temperature of water within buildings in the range that is most conducive for bacteria growth. And using less water, and water less often, means that water tends to sit in pipes longer, giving the bacteria a better chance of growing.
The number of reported cases of Legionnaires’ has also been influenced by better diagnostics and more heightened awareness in the medical community. Legionnaires’ disease is widely assumed to be underreported, undiagnosed, or mistaken for pneumonia.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened an expert committee to evaluate the situation. It estimated that the true number of Legionnaires’ disease cases in the U.S. each year is between 52,000 and 70,000. The higher estimate accounts for cases that are misdiagnosed as pneumonia or not reported.
Though 2019 data is still incomplete, this has already been a record-breaking year.
 This summer, the state of Georgia registered the largest Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in its history. So did North Carolina, where 142 people were sickened at the Mountain State Fair. Four people died in that outbreak, which was linked to a hot tub display at an exhibition hall.
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which depends on your support for independent water news and analysis. Please visit and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.