Lead in Drinking Water
LEAD IN CANADIAN SCHOOL WATER MAKES HEADLINES AGAIN
The issue of lead in school water is hardly new. In fact, public health issues seem to come and go as media move on to new concerns. When tests revealed elevated levels of lead in the tap water of four schools in Prince Rupert earlier this month, it was hardly an isolated event. Such findings have made headlines for years in the province and across Canada.
In 2011, inspectors noted that 35 elementary and 12 secondary older schools were not flushing drinking fountains before the start of the school day as recommended previously; in 2012, the death of salmon eggs in a classroom aquarium in Kitimat triggered an investigation that found elevated levels of copper and lead in the drinking water of four schools; the same year, tests in New Brunswick found 147 of the province's 311 schools had water fountains with levels of lead and copper that exceeded Health Canada guidelines; in 2013, tests conducted by Radio-Canada's public affairs show, L'Épicerie found that 30% of the Québec schools tested had elevated levels of lead.
It has long be known that lead can be hazardous to human health, even in very small amounts, and that young children are more susceptible to its harmful effects.
A 2011 study entitled Lead in school drinking water: Canada can and should address this important ongoing exposure source, written by Prabjit Barn a scientist at the BC Centre for Disease Control states:
"Reducing all preventable lead exposures in children should be a public health priority given that blood lead levels in children that were once considered 'safe' have since been associated with important neuro-developmental deficits. Limited Canadian data indicate that school drinking water can be an important component of children’s overall exposure to lead. Outside of Ontario, however, Canadian schools are not required to test for lead in water; in most of Canada, school testing is case by case, typically initiated by parental concerns."
In 2014, Barn reiterated her concerns in the study Investigating elevated copper and lead levels in school drinking water, "Copper and lead continue to be detected at levels above drinking water guidelines in Canadian schools. Although water is typically not an important source of these metals, intermittent use and corrosive water can cause copper and lead to leach from plumbing. Exposure to elevated copper levels is linked to acute gastrointestinal effects in the short term and possible liver effects in the long term, whereas even low level lead exposures are associated with neurodevelopmental effects."
Why in the face of such compelling evidence did it take four years after Kitimat for schools to be tested in Prince Rupert? Was it the widely reported Flint crisis that hit a nerve?
Neither the School District nor Northwern Health were willing to comment on this; each telling us to ask the other.
"It was Northern Health that approached the School District to propose helping us test our water fountains," says District 52 Superintendent Sandra Jones. "The results revealed that 48 per cent of the locations tested showed elevated levels of lead. As soon as we found out we started flushing the lines every morning and we will be installing new filtered water fountains. There are 600 to 800 students in the four schools involved in the testing."
Reading from a prepared statement, Jonathan Druick, spokesperson for Northern Health said:
"The Northern Health Authority will be helping school districts test the drinking water in four other northwest communities following the discovery of elevated lead levels at schools in Prince Rupert. While we have no evidence of children being adversely affected in B.C., it is nonetheless important to reduce their exposure to lead."
In a Times Colonist article, provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, recommended that schools be instructed to review their policies and practices.
"It's as easy to forget a regulation as it is a policy," he said. "What you actually need in place is a policy that people are actually aware of."
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