A recent investigation has revealed dangerously high levels of lead in tap water across the country, primarily due to decaying infrastructure and negligence. The year-long investigation took thousands of samples from 11 cities, and when the results were combined with previous municipal data they concluded that 33 per cent of tap water exceeds the national safety guidelines of five parts per billion. The main source of contamination is the service pipes that connect homes and apartment buildings to the central water source. Even more shocking is the extent to which some city samples exceeded the guidelines. Parts of Edmonton, for example, had water contamination samples 86 per cent higher than the safety guidelines. Many of the samples had higher contamination levels of lead than Flint, Michigan.
A festering problem
But this is not the first report to reveal contamination in tap water; a federal committee on transport, infrastructure and communities reported in 2017 that at least 500,000 homes across Canada were being serviced by decaying lead pipes. In the community of Tottenham, just north of Toronto, officials have been aware of high levels of carcinogens in the tap water for the past 15 years. So far, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment has suggested further testing in Tottenham but made it clear that “this was a recommendation and not a legal requirement.” That safe drinking water is not considered a “legal requirement” is baffling.
While governments have certainly been aware of this for some time, the problem remains unresolved. One of the reasons is that much of the contamination comes from lead pipes in privately owned buildings and the various layers of government have been in no rush to require private landlords to replace their pipes. Municipalities have accepted that they cannot make the landlords pay, and in places such as Montreal they have already incorporated into their own budgets the costs of reimbursing private owners for any spending they may have to take on.
So thus far, landlords are not required to test, replace, or even report the water quality in their housing units. This has meant that many municipalities don’t even have an accurate estimate of the number of homes and apartments exposed to high levels of lead contamination, let alone the ability to do anything about it.
Governments have sought alternatives to replacing lead pipes, such as using a non-toxic substance called orthophosphate which was added to the tap water in 2014 in Ontario to control corrosion. It initially cost $9 million to introduce and an additional $3 million per year to maintain the process. This method seemed successful, based on limited municipal testing, with less than two per cent of water samples exceeding the guidelines. But already, provinces such as Manitoba have expressed that the cost of testing alone would be a “significant burden”, never mind actually paying to replace all the old piping or developing an alternative method such as adding orthophosphate. Again, our governments easily find billions for corporate handouts but when it comes to something as simple as clean drinking water, we are left out to dry.
But why are these officials unable to stand up boldly in defense of a basic human right to safe drinking water? The case of Tottenham provides insight into this issue. At a town hall meeting in Tottenham, one of the locals asked how many of the government officials actually live in the community and drink the tap water. No one, including the mayor, deputy mayor and councillors, raised their hands to say they live in Tottenham and drink its water. The class divide plays a role here. Most of our representatives are rich and are unaffected by this problem which poses a real health risk for millions of poor Canadians. There is a glaring gap between those that control the supply of drinking water and those that actually have to drink that water and deal with the consequences.
Capitalism is poisoning us
It may be shocking to have such widespread contamination go unaddressed for so long, when governments consistently prioritize corporate interest above the well-being of working class people. While municipalities struggle to figure out how to pay for the necessary infrastructural improvements, the wealth to do so clearly exists. For instance, just last year, the federal Liberal government provided a $16 billion corporate tax cut package. That wealth could instead have gone towards coordinating a solution for this national water contamination problem. But it isn’t one uncooperative landlord or government official that is to blame, rather it is the whole system.
Capitalism is an irrational, chaotic system which places private profit above all else. The government prioritizes corporate bailouts over clean water, and the landlords have no interest in making sure that we have clean drinking water. We therefore need to change this system if we want to solve this problem. Under a socialist plan for housing, workers and tenants would democratically run their housing blocks and would have all of the infrastructure funding necessary to fully tackle the issue of providing clean and safe drinking water, along with any other challenges.
This calls for united action from working class people, across all jurisdictions. Canada is one of the richest countries in the world and yet is unable to meet a basic need for safe drinking water. This fact alone is a condemnation of capitalism, a system that maintains itself on the back of increasingly inhumane living conditions for the majority of people. If the government and private owners are unable to meet the basic right to safe drinking water, the working class must take up the task itself and use the wealth generated by society to meet the needs of the majority.