Frequently Asked Questions: Water testing at McGill

Where does McGill’s drinking water come from?

There are four main sources at McGill:

  • The University manages three water networks: one downtown, one at Macdonald Campus, and one at the Gault Nature Reserve. The McGill networks supply about 65 buildings.
  • The City of Montreal water network supplies many McGill buildings, both downtown and in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. About 50 University buildings are connected directly to municipal water infrastructure.

How often does McGill test drinking water on its campuses and what does it test for?

The management of the three water networks obliges McGill to monitor certain parameters in its drinking water and act when non-conformances occur. The requirements for water potability testing, including testing schedules, locations, frequency, and methods, are defined by the provincial Regulation respecting the quality of drinking water.

As per regulations, McGill undertakes the following tests:

  • Escherichia coli (aka E. coli) and total coliform bacteria: weekly
  • Turbidity (how cloudy the water is): monthly
  • Trihalomethane: annually
  • Lead and copper: annually

McGill tests drinking water for lead annually in the summer, as per provincial regulation. The summer is the period of the year where the levels of lead are likely to be the highest as lead dissolves more easily in warmer water. Secondly, water consumption in most buildings on campus is lower in the summer, and the level of lead may increase in stagnant water if there is lead in a building’s plumbing system. The level of lead detected in the summer does not necessarily reflect the level that would be detected at other times of the year.

Finally, it is important to differentiate water quality from water potability. Water potability indicates if water is suitable for human consumption. McGill conducts water potability tests. Water quality, such as taste and smell, is the responsibility of the City of Montréal, which operates the water filtration and distribution systems on the island of Montréal.

How does McGill determine the sampling locations and why doesn’t it test every building?

The sampling locations for the McGill networks are determined in collaboration with the provincial government and in agreement with the Québec Regulation respecting the quality of drinking water. Identifying the testing locations is an ongoing and evolving process and these locations may change from year to year.

As of January 2024, the number of sampling locations and frequency will be as follows:

Parameter analyzed Frequency Number of sampling locations (Downtown Campus) Number of sampling locations (Macdonald Campus)
Escherichia coli (aka E. coli) and total coliform bacteria Weekly 49 10
Turbidity Monthly 1 1
Trihalomethane Annually 1 1
Lead and copper Annually 20 10

How are water tests carried out?

Water testing at McGill is carried out by an external laboratory accredited by the Ministère de l’Environnement. It has the obligation to submit non-compliant results to the Ministère.

The Ministère de l’Environnement determines the testing methods. They include instructions on when to take a sample, such as the time of day and when to take a sample after opening a tap. This can help indicate if issues come from within a building or from an outside source.

What happens if a water sample doesn’t comply with regulatory standards?

If a sample indicates that safety thresholds for a substance are exceeded, the University communicates with building users through signage and other means and puts in place either a do not consume water advisory or a boil water advisory until an investigation can take place and corrections have been undertaken, if they are needed.

Normally, water advisories are communicated to users by building directors, who best know the spaces and their population’s needs.

When a water advisory is issued, the University directs users to alternative sources of drinking water.

Can I request water testing in my building?

Unfortunately, we do not offer on-demand water testing. The University determines sampling locations across campus with the objective to monitor and minimize risk to public health. The sampling locations will rotate to include more buildings, and additional locations are tested beyond the regulatory requirements, both in terms of number of sampling locations and frequency, due to their location.

The volume of work generated by minimal regulatory requirements and any additional testing McGill undertakes requires a lot of time and resources, and therefore, we cannot provide on-demand testing.

Why is there lead in some drinking water in Quebec?

Usually, lead gets into drinking water because of its dissolution from lead pipes or solders. This is most likely to occur during warmer months of the year and when water is left to stagnate in pipes.

Between the 1940s and 1970s, in Québec, lead water inlets and piping were installed in many single-family homes and in buildings with fewer than eight housing units. This practice was banned by the National Plumbing Code in 1980. Lead was also used in the soldering of pipes. Solders in interior plumbing systems in buildings can also be a source of lead in water. In 1989, the National Plumbing Code banned the use of solders that contain more than 0.2% lead.

Institutional buildings generally have larger water inlets and in Québec, cast iron was used for water inlets of three inches in diameter and above. They may however have some interior plumbing containing lead if they are old. Newer buildings are unlikely to have a water inlet nor interior plumbing system that contains lead.

For more information, visit this government webpage.

Why hasn’t McGill identified and removed all lead pipes and soldering?

Locating and identifying the components of water inlets, pipes, and pipe soldering is complicated. Access may only be possible by cutting open walls, floors, and pavement.

Whenever lead is located on campus, it is removed wherever feasible. This may occur during renovations and repairs or following testing for lead in water.

If it is not feasible to remove lead components in a building, other remediation measures are taken, such as the installation of NSF-certified filters or providing pitchers with lead-removing filters.

What is the regulatory threshold for lead in water in Quebec?

In 2021, Quebec lowered the safety threshold from 0.010 mg/l to 0.005 mg/l. That is consistent with Health Canada’s recommendations.

What are the health effects of lead in drinking water, and does a non-compliant test result for a building where I work or study pose a concern?

A Government of Quebec webpage on the health implications of lead states that “the health effects of exposure to lead depend on the frequency and length of exposure as well as the lead concentration in water.” The page warns that children under 6 and fetuses are more vulnerable to the effects of lead than adults.

A more general page about lead states that “in Québec, the concentration of lead in drinking water is generally very low.”

There is also information on lead and health available from Montreal’s regional public health authority and from Health Canada.


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