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Investigations

Drinking water at thousands of Ontario schools, daycares have dangerous lead levels

More than 2,400 Ontario schools and daycares exceeded the current federal guideline for lead in drinking water in the past two years, a joint investigation between Global News, The Toronto Star, the Ryerson School of Journalism and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism has found.

The figure marks a 275 per cent jump from two years ago due to more frequent testing and tougher federal lead limits that reveal a dramatically larger problem than was previously known.

While Ontario’s lead threshold has been at 10 parts per billion (ppb) — and remains there as the province adapts to the new national guideline — the Health Canada level of five ppb announced earlier this year captures what experts agree is a level more reflective of the neurotoxin’s health risks.

Across the province, nine per cent of all lead tests in schools and daycares exceeded the national lead guideline of five parts per billion during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, according to an analysis of provincial test result data conducted by reporters for this investigation.

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In all, 29 per cent of schools and daycares had at least one exceedance.

Some were dramatic. Around two dozen schools and daycares across Ontario reported samples higher than 1,000 ppb — a level experts say can immediately impact blood-lead levels in a child.

READ MORE: Is Canada’s tap water safe? Thousands of test results show high lead levels across the country

The data is available on a provincial website but a lack of warnings to students, parents and teachers has kept the problem hidden.

“As a student, I think I should be told,” says 19-year-old Sarah Rana, who graduated last year from White Oaks Secondary School, an Oakville high school with about 1,900 students in two buildings dating back to the 1960s.

Lead fixtures, including taps and water fountains, were historically used in school plumbing and many remain in place today as the main culprits of elevated lead levels in drinking water.

Tainted Water: Are the fountains safe?
Tainted Water: Are the fountains safe?

With lead exceedances dating back to 2016, the school’s south campus showed 22 water samples over the federal lead guideline last year. On the school’s north campus, there were another 26 with samples tested as high as 140 ppb — 28 times the federal guideline.

“I’m shocked,” said Rana.

“I don’t even know what to think about that. … How is this going to affect me in the long term?”

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Children, especially younger children, are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of lead because their bodies absorb the toxin more than adults. Lead consumption, be it in paint, environmentally or in drinking water, can impact a child’s cognitive development, IQ levels and overall health.

There is no safe level of lead, according to the World Health Organization.

“Lead doesn’t really confine itself to one organ,” said Dr. Pascal Lavoie, pediatrician and researcher at the B.C. Children’s Hospital and B.C. Women’s Hospital.

“It’s a metal that binds to any tissues in the body. It’s in the brain, it’s in the heart, it’s in the bowel, it’s in the cardiovascular system. … The effects are permanent and non-reversible.”

A 2013 Health Canada risk management strategy predicted an economic benefit of more than $9 billion a year “if the exposure of Canadian children to lead could be eliminated.” It factored the number of children exposed each year and the impact on intellectual development and lifetime earnings.

Ontario is the only province that mandates that schools and daycare centres test for lead. Everywhere else, lead testing is not mandated and obtaining results requires filing time-consuming and often expensive freedom of information requests.

Repairs at Ontario school could cost almost $16B

On July 1, 2017, Ontario’s Safe Drinking Water Act changed to require that lead tests be conducted by schools and daycares at any fountain or tap that is used for drinking water and/or preparing food.

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Testing increased to 87,219 in 2017-18 from 15,374 in 2016-17.

“You start looking for it, you’re going to find very, very high lead in many classrooms, where some of our most vulnerable age groups are present, and drinking a lot of water,” says Marc Edwards, a civil engineer and lead expert from Virginia Tech who helped set up lead testing protocols in Ontario.

“And there’s nothing that you can do to undo harm in the past. The only thing you can do is to try to reduce that risk in the future.”

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Ontario schools are grappling with a backlog of repairs, totalling almost $16 billion. Removing plumbing can seem like a pipe dream, likely to fall off the priorities list.

In a written statement, Ministry of Education officials wrote that the “vast majority” of public and private schools and child-care centres have had “no problems with lead” in their drinking water and that when exceedances to occur, school boards and private school and daycare owners must take “immediate corrective action.”

But the province has not indicated there will be more infrastructure funding to actually remove lead, school board officials say.

“There hasn’t really been much discussion from the Ministry of Education to us about how to respond to this,” says Maia Puccetti, superintendent of facility services for the Halton District School Board.

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“In Canada, it doesn’t seem that we’ve made it a very big issue and that comes down to the fact that we have a laissez-faire attitude toward our water in general. We have an abundance. … We’ve not done a very good job of maintaining our infrastructure and we’re paying the price now. “

I’m shocked’: Lead control expert says there needs to be more transparency in Canada
I’m shocked’: Lead control expert says there needs to be more transparency in Canada

Jennifer Sarna, a superintendent with the York Catholic District School Board, says it remains unclear how school boards are going to deal with the inevitable spike in exceedances with the lowering of the federal lead guideline.

“I can clearly see by looking at the test results … we’re going to be strapped to manage,” she said.

“I don’t know if there is a plan. … It was only after digging into it after you reached out to me that I learned about it. Otherwise, I would have been blissfully unaware.”

The Ministry of Education’s written statement says that while it allocates funding to school boards, those boards are responsible for deciding how the funds are spent, “as they are in the best position to determine their renewal priorities and local needs.”

READ MORE: Quebec children at risk of lead exposure from water in schools and daycares

Ian Gaudet, controller of facility services for the Waterloo Region District School Board, said replacing all of the board’s lead plumbing is simply too expensive.

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“In some cases, it’s underground, it’s in walls and so would be very destructive and very costly,” Gaudet said.

And it’s often difficult to know the source of the lead — often the spikes are not from the pipes themselves but from plumbing fixtures, water fountains and the solder used to join pipes.

“We have purchased new bottle filling stations which have succeeded. And so, we work with our vendors to make sure that our products … don’t use lead solder in the joints,” Gaudet said.

Test sampling, lab analysis, staff time, and replacement or removals of fixtures and piping have cost the Waterloo board about $250,000 this past year, Gaudet said.

“To my knowledge, there has been no additional direct support for increased funding to support the increased scrutiny on each drinking source and then reduction in the threshold.”

READ MORE: Edmonton residents exposed to high lead levels in water over last decade, investigation finds

Lead problems in new fixtures are widespread, says Michele Grenier, executive director for Ontario Water Works, a not-for-profit involved in drinking water research and policy development.

“Lead-free brass wasn’t actually lead-free until 2014,” she said. Before then, “lead-free” brass contained up to 8 per cent lead; in 2014, federal building codes ordered a standard of less than 1 per cent. “Lead-free” taps were routinely installed in schools, including during new constructions.

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“When a system is new, it’s sort of fresh and shiny, and the lead is more likely to leak out at that point than it is when the pipes have got, sort of, built up their natural coating after years and years of being exposed to the water.”

Public schools

The highest number of lead exceedances were measured in taxpayer-funded schools –– 8,556 out of 79,191 tests –– an 11 per cent failure rate, based on the current federal guideline. More than 2,000 public schools have logged at least one lead exceedance over the national guideline during the 2016-2018 period, some with repeated exceedances over dozens of tests.

Schools in the Peel District School Board logged the most exceedances with 773. Dufferin Peel Catholic District School Board with 550 and Ottawa-Carleton District School Board with 501 round out the top three.

Overall, there are 26 school boards with more than 100 exceedances and 43 with more than 50.

Here is a sampling of public schools across the province:

Timmins High and Vocational School Front View
Timmins High and Vocational School Front View (District School Board Ontario North East)

Timmins High and Vocational School, Timmins, District School Board Ontario North East

This high school had the most lead exceedances of any one school with 67 — 56 per cent of all tests. One test was 497 ppb in 2017 (nearly 100 times the national guideline).

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Lesleigh Dye, director of education for the district board, said the board “follows the current (testing) measures that our medical officer of health has recommended,” including reporting lead problems to the province.

Brother Andre Catholic High School, Markham, York Catholic District School Board

The highest single test recorded came from a sample at this high school on August 29, 2017. It measured more than 1,300 times above the federal guideline — at 6,710 ppb. In the U.S., the EPA considers lead to be hazardous waste if concentrations exceed 5,000 ppb.

Such dramatically high lead level samples are most likely due to a “chunk of lead” in the tap, said Edwards, who first blew the whistle on the serious lead issue in Flint, Michigan in late 2015.

“You have to take these high results seriously,” he said.

‘There is no safe level of lead’ for children: Pediatrician
‘There is no safe level of lead’ for children: Pediatrician

The classroom sink, where the high lead levels were found, was capped and closed after staff attempted — unsuccessfully — to resolve the problem by flushing and replacing the accessible pipes, said Jennifer Sarna, a superintendent with the York Catholic board.

“At that school… the preliminary steps that usually produce a resolution were not working. There was no feasible financial way to address the issue,” said Sarna.

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The board logged 112 exceedances of the national standard during the past two years.

“We have a number of options and we’ll go through whichever one is feasible from a financial perspective and we will do what we can to resolve the issue. So in an ideal world, sure, we’ll change the pipes. But that’s not always possible.”

Algonquin Avenue Public School, Thunder Bay, Lakehead District School Board

This school for junior kindergarten to Grade 8 has 325 students. Last year, it had 50 exceedances. In all, the school had a 38 per cent exceedance rate between 2016 and 2018.

“There are more [exceedance] numbers, but it’s making us better. It’s more information and more transparency,” said Kyle Ulvang, health and safety officer for district board. “I think knowing the numbers is better. Before, we didn’t know true numbers and with sporadically sampling, it was more concerning.”

Western Technical-Commercial School, Toronto, Toronto District School Board

This school, in the High Park area of Toronto, which shares the building with the Ursula Franklin Academy and the alternative The Student School, had 16 national guideline lead exceedances last year, one reaching as high as 510 ppb.

“We did have exceedances and we ended up replacing the fixtures,” said Steve Shaw, the TDSB’s executive officer of facilities and planning. “There’s no doubt the change in regulation to test every source of drinking water over five years has had a financial impact on the board. We went from one sample to a third of the building.”

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Water sampling analysis last year cost the TDSB $280,000.

Flushing, the typical response to lead exceedances, comes with its own costs, said Shaw.

“We’re taking a pretty precious commodity — drinking water — and flushing it down the drain every day,” he said. “There’s a finite amount of money and if you’re pouring it down the drain, it seems like a waste. But you can’t put a price on safety. We spend whatever we need to spend to make sure it’s safe.”

St. Vincent Catholic Elementary School, Oakville, Halton Catholic District School Board

This school, which opened in 1960 in Oakville, had 13 exceedances in 2016-2017 and 21 in 2017-2018.

“We regularly test our drinking water fixtures, and if exceedances are detected, we implement appropriate measures based on the direction and guidance from the Halton Region Health Department,” said Steve Allum, manager of environmental programs with the district school board.

In addition to flushing and installing filters, the board removes lead-laced fixtures, including one in St. Vincent, he said in a written statement.

“In those instances, labour and materials are usually around a few hundred dollars. If fixture replacement is necessary, the full cost can range into the thousands.”

Private Schools

(Ridley College/Facebook)
(Ridley College/Facebook) (Ridley College/Facebook)

Ontario private schools had a 5 per cent exceedance rate, with 273 tests above the national standard. More than 100 private schools in all had at least one lead exceedance over the past two years. Some private schools have also shown chronic lead issues.

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One of the highest numbers of exceedances was registered at Ridley College in St. Catharines — 22 exceedances in 128 tests.

The school — which has an annual tuition ranging from $17,000 for kindergarten students up to $33,000 a year for high school students to $68,000 for international students — saw a jump from four exceedances in 2016-2017 to 18 exceedances the next year. They ranged from 5 ppb to 147 ppb.

“Ridley College… has been purposefully addressing the areas of need on our campus,” the school wrote in a statement. “We will continue to partner with and report to the Ministry of the Environment and the local Medical Officer of Health to ensure the cleanest, safest and most reliable drinking water possible.”

Westboro Academy in Ottawa, a private kindergarten to Grade 8 school with an annual tuition of about $14,000 a year, saw only one exceedance in the 2016-2017 school year but had nine last year.

School officials declined requests for comment from the Star.

Heritage Academy of Learning Excellence in Ottawa, a not-for-profit school specializing in dyslexia and ADD for students in Grades 1-12, had 10 exceedances out of 18 tests in the past two years.

The school’s director, Cheryl Ward, directed the Star’s questions to the Ottawa Catholic School Board, which owns the building.

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Gerry Sancartier, the board’s property and operations officer, said the exceedances happened at two fixtures in the school which were addressed through flushing, installing a lead filter and replacing one of the fixtures at a cost of $500.

Daycares

There were 646 lead exceedances measured in daycare centres over the two years — an overall exceedance rate of 3.5 per cent. In all, 281 Ontario daycares had at least one lead exceedance in that period including dozens of daycares that had a string of repeat exceedances.

“The child in the daycare is… like a sponge to lead,” said Michele Prévost, a civil engineering professor at Polytechnique Montreal and a leading international expert on lead in drinking water.

“So, that child that is exposed to a high concentration… is going to be exposed to an acute dose of lead which will actually impact his blood lead levels significantly to the point of causing an acute exposure and impacts on his health.”

The Rainbow Centre in Atikokan, Ont., west of Thunder Bay, had 62 exceedances out of 114 tests between 2016 and 2018 — 54 per cent of tests were above the national guideline.

“Lead is very dangerous for children,” said Kristi Langner, executive director of the non-profit daycare which is licenced for 64 spots ranging from infants up to 12-year-olds. “So I said, ‘how can we fix this, how can we get this done? I want to do what’s best for them.’”

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READ MORE: Avoiding lead exposure: what you need to know

The daycare provided bottled water during the process of testing and re-testing.

“We have 11 sinks in the child-care area. They each had to be tested and they each had to have two compliant tests,” Langner said.

“So if something came back non-compliant we had to have more work done. And then we had to do those sinks again.”

Langer said it cost over $12,000 to address the problem over a year and a half.

“We’re now 100 per cent compliant,” she said.

The centre still flushes pipes every morning because of the age of the building and concerns that the lead could be in the municipal source, she says.

The Kinsmen Children’s Centre in Waterloo logged a 72 per cent exceedance rate with 43 exceedances last year based on the national guideline.

“All fixtures were flushed and re-sampled results came back within standards. We continue to flush our fixtures regularly,” wrote Bethany Rowland, a spokesperson for the Region of Waterloo.

Central Park YMCA Child Care Centre in Brampton showed lead exceedances in six of the eight tests over the past two years, provincial data shows — a 75 per cent failure rate.

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Montreal mayor unveils new action plan to tackle lead water pipes
Montreal mayor unveils new action plan to tackle lead water pipes

Following the test results, the centre moved to bottled water and installed a water filtration system, wrote Chris Meyer, a spokesperson for the YMCA, in an email response.

“We take the safety of children seriously. Healthy child development is at the core of what we do every day at our approximately 300 child-care locations across the Greater Toronto Area.”

The Kanata Montessori School (north campus) in Ottawa exceeded the national standard 14 times in the 2017-2018 school year, the data shows.

“We lease our building from the City of Ottawa,” said principal Jonathan Robinson. “We were not aware of high lead content as the city tests the water and we were told that it was not guaranteed to be safe for drinking so we ship in water for drinking.”

Testing and Transparency

The province requires schools with exceedances to flush the main water line for five minutes and fixtures for 10 seconds every day.

But while experts agree flushing reduces lead levels temporarily, it is not a reliable solution, says Prévost.

A study published last year in Water Research, co-authored by Prévost, found that 30 minutes after flushing, lead levels return to roughly half those following eight-hour stagnation, bringing into question Ontario’s solution to elevated lead in drinking water.

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“Flushing will help a little bit,” Prévost said in an interview. “But flushing will not solve the issue. The concentrations will creep up again within half an hour.”

A 2016 study Prévost co-published tested lead levels in 8,530 elementary schools, daycares and large buildings in four provinces, concluding that while overall lead levels were low, some daycares and elementary schools showed lead releases that were “likely to cause elevated (blood level levels) in young children.” The highest exceedances could trigger, “rare but acute risk,” it reads.

Public health initiatives promoting drinking water over other beverages, including the most recent Canada Food Guide, means reducing lead exposure in daycares and schools is “critical,” it concludes, adding that the standard policy of addressing the issue through flushing “should be re-examined.”

Yanna Lambrinidou, a leading U.S. researcher on lead in water at Virginia Tech, agrees.

“The notion that a morning flush is an adequate remedial measure is worrisome. It is not backed by science,” she said.

WATCH: Quebec to review how it tests drinking water following investigative report

Schools are more likely to have lead issues due to long breaks in which students and staff members are not in the building using the plumbing or taps, causing water to stagnate in pipes, absorbing more lead.

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“Overnight and weekends and breaks; all of these things increase the lead content in the water,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and public health advocate at the Hurley Medical Centre in Michigan, who helped expose the Flint water crisis.

Hanna-Attisha was not surprised about the number of schools and daycares in Ontario with lead exceedances.

“The greatest irony is that you go to school to learn and to fill your brain with awesomeness. Yet, here you are potentially being exposed to something that can really do the exact opposite in terms of development,” she said.

“Children exposed to lead will have higher rates of heart disease, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, early dementia, gout, anemia — I mean, the list goes on of what childhood exposure to lead can cause later in life.”

Lead also poses a significant risk to pregnant women, as the metal is easily transferred to the fetus. It has also been linked to an elevated risk of stillbirth.

“I am asking the education sector to check relevant policies so parents and guardians are informed in a timely manner of any lead exceedance detected in their school or childcare centre,” then-education minister Mitzie Hunter wrote to school boards in October 2017.

Hunter also asked parents be notified in a timely manner and understand corrective steps.

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But many students and parents say they have remained in the dark.

Rana, who studied at Oakville’s White Oaks Secondary School until graduating last year, learned of her school’s lead problem from a Facebook post.

She said she started to avoid the school’s drinking fountains at all costs, often going all day without drinking water. She was upset that neither she nor her parents received a notice from the school board about high lead results.

“If there had been [warnings sent to parents], the whole school would have been talking about it.

“No one knew. No one was talking about it.”

READ MORE: Calgary doesn’t know how many homes have lead pipes that could make water unsafe

Halton District School board logged 304 exceedances — one of the highest totals among school boards in the province.

Maia Puccetti, superintendent of facility services for the Halton board, says White Oaks’ high lead readings — including one at 140 ppb — were taken during construction at the school last summer when water wasn’t being routinely used.

But test results in both 2016 and 2017 also detail lead exceedances at the school.

Puccetti said exceedances should be communicated to parents and students through email messages from the school

“Maybe we just need to make them more aware in some way,” she said. “School boards are doing the best we can to manage the situation … I recognize it is a big concern.”

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The Toronto District School Board does not post lead-testing results online. Parents are able to see the results at each school, according to the TDSB.

“We’re committed to openness and transparency,” said the TDSB’s Steve Shaw.

“It’s our intention in the fall to have all of those results posted on individual school websites.”