For more than seven years, children and teachers inside the red-bricked Scotsburn Elementary School in Pictou County have been told not to drink water from the taps.
But parents and teachers say they were never told why.
“We always knew there was an issue with the water, but we were never told what,” says Cindy Graham, a former teacher at the school who spent much of her 25-year career teaching in the primary to Grade 5 school.
Here’s why: provincial government drinking water tests of samples taken at the school dating back a decade show repeated spikes of lead, a neurotoxin that poses serious health risks to young, developing brains.
Data on lead testing in Nova Scotia schools and daycares, which is not routinely made public, was obtained for the first time through a freedom of information (FOI) request.
Unlike Ontario, which mandates lead testing in all schools and daycares and publishes the results online, no such transparency exists in Nova Scotia.
Provincial officials concede there is no comprehensive repository of lead test results from schools and daycares accessible to teachers, parents, students and staff.
And the two-thirds of schools connectd to municipal water supplies — including most in the Halifax area and some of the largest schools in the province — are entirely absent in the data because they have never tested for lead at the tap.
There is no safe level of lead, experts agree. And the risk is greatest for children, especially younger children, who are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of lead because their bodies absorb the toxin more than adults. Lead in paint, the environment or drinking water can impact a child’s cognitive development, IQ levels and overall health.
Michèle Prévost, an environmental scientist and engineering professor at Polytechnique Montréal, said she wasn’t surprised at Nova Scotia’s lack of transparency.
“The non-disclosure, the non-systematic verification, that’s the reality across Canada,” she said.
“It’s rather sad.”
Following inquiries from reporters, Education Minister Zach Churchill said the province is ramping up testing in schools and is working to create a publicly available central database of water-testing results.
Scotsburn tests for lead as required of all rural Nova Scotia schools that draw water from a well. Of the 119 lead tests conducted since 2009, 111 exceeded the current federal lead guideline of five parts per billion (ppb). Results reached as high as 65 ppb in the Pictou County school’s tap water.
“Truthfully, this really takes me aback,” said Graham, whose two children went to the school.
Now she’s concerned about the long-term, cumulative health impacts for her own family and the larger community.
Glen McCarron, principal at Scotsburn Elementary, said he doesn’t think the school has ever notified parents about the water or why it’s unsafe to drink.
“There hasn’t been a whole lot of conversation around it with the parents,” he said. “It’s just kind of been just the way it’s been … It hasn’t been a big issue.”
These findings are part of a national collaborative investigation by media outlets and universities across Canada, including Star Halifax, Global News and the University of King’s College. They show Scotsburn is not alone in struggling with elevated lead levels. But it’s impossible to know the scope of the problem across Nova Scotia, thanks to an inconsistent lead-testing regime in schools and daycares that is shrouded in secrecy.
While the department of environment requires schools on wells to test their water for contaminants including lead, schools on municipal water supplies — 220 of the province’s 370 schools — are missing from the provincial data.
The province has not required schools in larger population centres like Halifax, Dartmouth and Sydney to test for lead, leaving its monitoring to municipal water systems instead.
“If an issue is found, we expect and have been reassured by the municipality that we would be notified so we can then take appropriate action for the safety of students and staff,” reads a written statement from the province.
In response to questions from the Star last week, Minister Churchill said testing in larger schools on municipal water services is now underway.
“We’re conducting those tests now,” he said.
Until now, municipalities didn’t test school taps and fountains for lead. And experts and published research say lead in school drinking water is primarily caused not by municipal pipes feeding the school but by fixtures, taps and fountains within the schools. These are contamination points that would never be flagged by municipal water pipe testing.
“This is the same logical fallacy that eventually imploded in the U.S.,” said Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and civil engineering at Virginia Tech who helped expose the water crisis in Flint, Mich., in 2015.
Similar to Nova Scotia, U.S. schools on wells were forced to test for lead, resulting in many with a “very high percentage with elevated lead in water,” he said, while schools on municipal water services were not tested because they were supposedly protected by municipal water system monitoring.
“But when we started testing the lead in schools in cities, we found lead in water problems at a higher rate. Why? Because the schools on wells have had years to get their problems fixed,” Edwards said.
“The reality is that the municipalities in the U.S. never told the schools they had a problem.”
Quebec expert Prévost agrees that school officials “cannot rely on municipal household sampling to determine whether schools have an issue.”
“Even in a really well-controlled distribution system, you may still get a bad tap or fountain, or really important sources of lead in the school plumbing, especially legacy leaded solders,” she said.
“That is why there is now international consensus to measure at each point where children drink or serve to prepare food.”
No historical lead tests for schools on municipal water
In Ontario, schools and daycares must test for lead at the tap each year. And just last month, following publication of this investigation’s findings as well as subsequent media coverage, Quebec’s education ministry told school boards to test all taps and fountains.
That has not been happening in Nova Scotia.
“To date, there has not been any additional testing for lead,” said Doug Hadley, spokesperson for the Halifax Regional Centre for Education, which operates 134 English public schools in the municipality. “We know Halifax Water conducts rigorous testing on the municipal water supply and they alert us to any and all potential concerns as they do for homeowners.”
Asked whether the Annapolis Valley Regional Centre for Education has been testing water at the taps in schools served by municipal water systems, spokesperson Kristen Loyst replied, “No.”
The Chignecto Central Regional Centre for Education (CCRCE) also hasn’t tested schools on municipal water supplies, spokesperson Jennifer Rodgers said.
“Municipalities have performed their own water tests,” Rodgers said.
Minister Churchill blamed the province’s old independent school board structure, which his government scrapped last year, for the lack of organization and transparency.
“You saw policies differ when it comes to reporting information like this,” he said. “We have been conducting ongoing work to bring some consistency to the areas where we believe consistency is needed, and this would be obviously one of them.”
Despite the lack of testing and public transparency, Churchill stands by the water quality in Nova Scotia’s schools.
“We can tell parents that you can rely on safe water, and in the event that a test does discover that there’s impurities in the water that makes it not safe to be potable, they’ll be informed right away,” he said.
“I am a parent and I feel absolutely comfortable and confident in the processes we have in place to make sure water is safe for students.”
Two dozen schools with lead exceedances
The entire set of provincial lead testing data released by the department of environment contained a total of about 300 test results dating back to 2009 — a third of those from Scotsburn. The rest listed a smattering of test results from about 60 mostly rural schools across the province, all on well water.
An analysis of the results shows 12 schools and daycares across the province have had lead levels above the current Health Canada guideline of five ppb in the last 10 years. Another seven schools in the Annapolis Valley also tested above that guideline, according to analysis of publicly-available water testing data that wasn’t included in the bundle of tests released under FOI.
And another list provided by the department of environment reveals five more schools that have had lead exceedances. The total: 24 schools across the province that have or have had elevated levels of lead.
In Scotsburn, Churchill said everyone knew why the water at their kids’ school wasn’t drinkable, and he’s never heard any complaints.
“I don’t believe it’s a secret there that there’s been surface water issues in that community related to lead for a long time,” he said.
Parents and teachers say that never happened.
Cathy Lavers spent 21 years of her teaching career at Scotsburn, beginning on the day it opened in 1989 until her retirement in 2010. Two of her three children went to the school.
Throughout, she had no idea there was elevated lead in the water until being informed by a reporter last week.
“I’m dismayed that the powers that be didn’t think we needed to know that,” she said in an interview. “There were years when I drank that and made my tea with it.
“I feel that we should have known.”
While bottled water was brought in at various stages throughout her career, there were also periods when teachers and students did use the taps and fountains for drinking.
“I know when the school opened, we used the fountains,” she said. “Lead didn’t just appear there six years after the school was built. For how long were we drinking lead? I do have concerns.”
Three of Nancy Maxner’s four children went to the school at Scotsburn between 2005 and 2013. She never thought much of the bottled water that was supplied for drinking. It’s common in a rural community like Scotsburn, she said.
But she doesn’t remember receiving any kind of communication about the problem.
“I don’t know that they did communicate with us as parents that there was something,” she said. “I’ve never had a conversation with anybody about it.”
Maxner didn’t know the problem was lead — let alone lead at the levels found in her kids’ former school.
“Holy smokes,” she said when told the lead levels at Scotsburn, where there are currently 89 students.
“It surprises me that it’s that high, but it doesn’t really cause any huge alarm because I know the school was monitoring it and putting the drinking water in place for the kids to drink.”
Today, water coolers still line the school’s hallways. But school principal McCarron said new water fountains are being installed, and the latest water testing shows safe levels of lead. He expects drinking water to be available from the school’s taps and fountains by the end of November.
Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney said he has “grave concerns” about the lack of transparency around water testing in schools.
“If you’re a parent or a teacher or a school staff member anywhere in Nova Scotia, you deserve to know that the water that you’re drinking when you’re at school is safe, period,” he said.
Wozney said he was especially concerned given 75 per cent of Nova Scotia’s teachers are women.
“Teachers regularly, routinely work into later in their pregnancies and I am very concerned about any female teacher who is carrying a child being at work under these conditions and it not being disclosed to them,” he said.
“Not only would there be health ramifications for the teacher, but potentially a lifetime of health issues for the child that they’re carrying.”
After being told by reporters that two long-time teachers at Scotsburn were never notified of the school’s lead problem, Wozney said that while there may have been bottled water in place, “It’s not enough to say, ‘Well, we mitigated the harm so people didn’t need to know…It appears that leadership, senior leadership, hasn’t been up front with people whose health may very well have been at risk and exposed to harm in some cases on a limited and in some cases on an extended basis…
“I don’t think anyone can blame a teacher for feeling alarmed at that realization.”
All regional centres for education contacted for this story refused to grant interviews, and they all said in statements that they notify parents whenever there are water quality issues in their schools.
According to a list of schools on advisories not to consume their water, provided by the department of environment, there are two schools other than Scotsburn where students currently can’t drink the water due to lead exceedances: Great Village Elementary in Colchester County, and Eastern Shore District High in Halifax Regional Municipality.
There are no exceedances listed for Great Village Elementary in the provincial data, but students there haven’t been able to drink the tap water since Sept. 27 of this year. Rodgers, the CCRCE spokesperson, said that’s because water testing revealed lead levels as high as 360 ppb.
“The principal of the school sent a notice home to parents to share the school was now on a chemical advisory and the school would now be using bottled water for drinking and cooking and that access to water fountains was discontinued,” Rodgers said in an email.
There are no exceedances listed for Eastern Shore District High in the data, either, but Halifax Regional Centre for Education spokesperson Doug Hadley said that school has been on bottled water for more than a decade “due to issues with water yield and quality.”
Since July, it’s been under a do-not-consume order due to lead exceedances.
Hadley said work is now underway to replace the well system at that school, and parents have been kept up to date on the project.
Minister Churchill stands by all schools’ testing and disclosure.
“Every school where the water is deemed to not to be potable for a variety of reasons that come from the testing, they’ll be informed immediately that they shouldn’t be drinking that water and alternative water sources will be brought in,” he said.
Wozney said he’d be following up with Churchill to make sure the province makes water testing data publicly available as soon as possible. And he said the province owes it to students, teachers and anyone else who used the schools to tell them definitively whether they could have been exposed to lead.
“I think anybody who worked in a school where their personal health and well-being was at risk, even the potential for their health to be at risk, deserves to be advised of that possibility so that they can make informed decisions,” he said.
“No one should go to bed worried about whether or not they’re victims of lead poisoning because they happened to attend a public school in Nova Scotia.”
Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University
Series Producer: Patti Sonntag
Research Coordinator: Michael Wrobel
Project Coordinator: Colleen Kimmett
Investigative Reporting Fellow: Lyndsay Armstrong
University of King’s College, School of Journalism
Faculty Supervisor: Pauline Dakin
Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University
See the full list of “Tainted Water” series credits here: concordia.ca/watercredits.