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Water Today Title July 7, 2022

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Update 2017/9/6
School Water


By Ronan O'Doherty

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A collective sigh made its way across the country from time zone to time zone as parents from St. Johns to Victoria sent their children back to school on Tuesday morning.

While the kids are soaking up new ideas, they'll need to be adequately hydrated to retain all the information bestowed upon them.

It is the school system's duty to ensure that their student have access to clean, drinkable water sources and it's arguably of paramount importance that they in turn educate the students on one of our country's most valuable resources.

Below we've compiled a few stories that touch on some keystone issues where education and water intersect.

Lead in Water

A constant worry for parents in older towns and cities across the country is the presence of lead in the school's tap water. All plumbing systems put in place before 1990 run the risk of being affected by lead in some way.

At the beginning of the school year in 2016, a fairly large scare affected the residents of Surrey when reports from the Surrey School District came out identifying 269 water sources (like fountains or cafeteria sinks) that were showing higher than allowable concentrations of lead.

A 2011 paper by Prabjit Barn for the BC Centre for Disease Control, outlined some of the many ways in which lead can be a factor in the drinking water of schools.

For instance, drinking fountains and stand-alone water coolers are associated with intermittent use and longer stagnation periods, so the lead has more time to build up concentration.

An obvious one is, older plumbing systems may have lead-based components.

Pipes that have lead in them can have differing affects based on length; in this case, longer pipes increase contact time between water and plumbing and may increase leaching. Additionally, the diameter of the pipes can also play a factor; a pipe with a smaller diameter, such as those used in water fountains, increase contact time between water and plumbing.

Even the pH and the alkalinity of the municipal water source the school is drawing from can play a role. Water with higher pH is associated with less leaching, especially if water is not well buffered. A higher pH can also increase the effectiveness of corrosion inhibitors. Likewise, higher alkalinity will buffer the pH of water and help to form a protective scale lining along pipes.

A representative for Interior Health BC said that the Ministry of Education is responsible for providing oversight to ensure public schools are safe and well-functioning for students as well as staff. In addition they established minimum requirements for lead testing in schools. In turn, the school districts are responsible for ensuring the quality of water within their systems and plumbing.

Regional health authorities have been providing updated information and supporting schools in implementing testing and mitigation measures as per the directives of the Ministry of Education.

School districts, in consultation with their Regional Health Authority, have developed water quality lead testing programs for their school facilities that may include the following;
  • Risk assessment,
  • Water testing ,
  • A communication plan, and
  • Mitigation strategies
According to Health Canada, mitigation solutions for affected schools may include;
    1) Flushing regimes,
    2) Deactivation of water sources and supplemental signage,
    3) Installation of filtration systems, and
    4) Plumbing upgrades

Doug Strachan, the spokesperson for the Surrey School District gave us an update on the schools that were affected. According to Strachan, all accessible water sources in the 63 pre-1990 schools continue to be within water-lead standards.

"To date, we have installed 271 new drinking fountains, 2,462 new sink faucets, 236 new "bubblers" (in-classroom sink fountains) and 239 filters," he wrote in an email to this reporter.

"We are now in the second phase in addressing the issue by installing automated flush stations at all 63 sites targeting September, 2018 as the completion date. As it implies, this will be a system that automatically flushes all the water lines before the school day begins."

He went on to point out that the permanent solution will be infrastructure replacement (replacing all the water piping in the schools), but couldn't commit to a timeline at this point.

Bottled Water

A hot button issue that has been discussed quite consistently over the last decade across the country is the sale of water bottles on school property.

Water advocates and student groups who oppose bottled water in schools point to the environmental impact of the bottles themselves and the mass removal of water from aquifers for commercial gain as the viable reasons to ban the sales.

Mike Nagy is Chair of the Board at Wellington Water Watchers, an NGO based in Guelph, Ontario. He said that reason the banning trend started happening was vending machine contracts that were being imposed on schools.

"It leads to unequal access to water," he said, "Water fountains are removed and contracts state that water fountains can't be within a certain distance of vending machines. It got to the point where people were saying that it is ridiculous that we are profiting off of students or youth with water.

Nagy went on to mention that when student councils take action, the bottled water industry responds assertively against them.

"Nestle representatives would fly out to schools and lobby the school boards over a 16 year old trying to stop pollution." Wellington Water Watchers recently engaged in a Message in the Bottle campaign in South Western Ontario schools.

"We bought thousands of stainless steel water containers and distributed them to 19,000 students in Guelph and Waterloo. We performed a waste audit two weeks prior and then two weeks after and two weeks after we saw 60% reduction," Nagy said, adding, "Many kids didn't even know the water in the school was drinkable."

He admitted that these kinds of programs don't have a lasting effect unless they're done all the time.

"It was a great success in the short term but also planted the seed for education. It shows that education is the key."

Elizabeth Griswold is the Executive Director of the Canadian Bottled Water Association (CBWA). She points to a University of Vermont Study published by Elizabeth Berman and Rachel Johnson in the American Journal for Public Health in 2015 when arguing to keep bottled water in schools.

"The University of Vermont study that was done after a year of banning bottled water in their university found that the amount of plastic that they had to recycle almost doubled," Griswold said, "The reason why is students turn to other, less healthy beverages. Those beverages are packaged in twice as much plastic as a bottle of water. A typical bottle of water is less than 9 grams of plastic, while juices and pop bottles typically contain 16 grams of plastic."

She also said that other studies show that when students turn to other beverages it will affect their attention level.

When asked about the same study, Nagy from Wellington Water Watchers said that it was ridiculous.

"It was an extremely short-term study that didn't bring into consideration many factors," he said, "Of course kids were going to sugary drinks because there wasn't refillable bottle water stations in place or education in place. The bottom line is, it's undeniable that if you remove packaged water out of the economy then waste will go down. There is simply no better way of reducing waste than avoiding packaging in the first place."

Water Testing Kits for Schools

One of our most important goals as a water media company is keeping our readers informed about the various contamination risks present in drinking water across Canada and the importance of mitigating them.

It could be argued that the part of the population that we should be reaching out to the most are the youth, who will be the future stewards of our water sources and the supply systems that guide them from those sources to the taps of our citizenry.

One group that is making an effort to reach out to the next generation is Safe Drinking Water Foundation.

Started in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan at the turn of the century, the foundation provides water testing kits to elementary and high schools across the country so that they can test their municipal water and see whether it meets the guidelines for Canadian drinking water quality.

"We want to educate the students who will become the engineers and politicians of the future about drinking water issues and solutions," said Nicole Hancock, Executive Director for Safe Drinking Water Foundation" It's very important to educate the young about these types of issues and to support them taking action in their communities to alleviate drinking water issues."

The foundation has seen students try to ban the sale of bottled water as well as throw water fairs and water information events, where they pass along their knowledge to the rest of the community.

"Our programs have grown from a few dozen kits being sent to schools in Saskatchewan and Alberta in 2001 to now where we send them all across Canada," said Hancock, "You can see over 2000 schools that have used our kits from Vancouver Island in the west to PEI in the east and Nunavut in the north. Just last year we sent 792 kits that were used by 36,934 students."

Hancock estimates that the amount of kids who have used the tests across Canada is probably around the half million mark based on the number of kits that the foundation has sent out.

In most cases, the students are testing the school's water itself for impurities but they aren't provided tests for one of the major toxins affecting schools, namely lead. Hancock says that the lead test is fairly expensive to include in the kits and the ones they have found come from the south of the border, where the levels are different from those that would match Canadian guidelines.

She said that in terms of the water quality in the schools, the worst affected would be first nations and rural schools, where they water supply system is not as robust as those found within larger towns or metropolitan areas.

Safe Drinking Water Foundation has some interesting initiatives coming up in the next few months.

"We have a student action competition for schools in Saskatoon, encouraging them to conserve water and to get others to conserve water too," Hancock said, "And this fall we're launching a water quality test results system, where teachers can enter their students' results and the results will be viewable on a map. Ideally, we hope to get funding in the future for experts to write reports based on the results."

Wrap Up

These stories are a small sample of the many issues surrounding water in schools. Lead remains a long lingering problem but is hopefully on its way to being something taught in history. Plastic water bottles being sold in school remains controversial and open to debate among students, their parents and school boards from coast to coast. Education about water is critical if Canadians want to continue to preserve on of their most important resources.

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