Editor’s note: This article was updated at 9:29 MT on Nov. 5, with additional comments from the Alberta government.
Thousands of children in Alberta are attending daycares and schools not knowing if they are drinking water contaminated with lead, despite warnings within the provincial government that these facilities should be monitored “to improve the health of children in Alberta.”
Never-before-published results of a 2017 daycare study by the province reveal more than 10 per cent of 150 daycares exceeded the previous Health Canada guideline of 10 parts per billion (ppb).
In March, Health Canada dropped the guideline to five ppb, stating that it better reflects the risks that lead, a neurotoxin, presents.
The highest daycare lead level was 35.5 ppb — seven times the current federal guideline. The province provided a letter template for daycares to send to parents, but the test results were never released publicly.
The report on the test results, prepared by Alberta Health Services in 2018, calls for “public health interventions…for daycares identified in this project.”
In children, exposure to lead can cause impaired cognitive development, behavioural problems and a loss of IQ.
“The child in the daycare is a young child, so he’s like a sponge to lead, especially more so when he’s younger,” said Michèle Prévost, a civil engineering professor from Polytechnique Montreal who has advised governments on how to mitigate lead risks.
There is no mandatory testing of water in schools and daycares in Alberta, making the real scope of the problem unknown.
Internal memos and correspondence among government staff, obtained through Freedom of Information requests, shows that despite concern over the test results there has been little action.
An internal report by Alberta Health Service published in June 2018 refers to the survey’s 10 per cent exceedance rate in daycares, saying, “every zone had one facility in the high mitigation category…The lead concerns… can also be applied to schools.”
An October 2018 document titled “Advice to Minister” reads: “Issue: Questions may be asked about what government is doing to support lead testing in schools and daycares…We want to protect our children from lead exposure.”
The lack of mandatory lead testing at schools and daycares stands in contrast to Ontario which has mandated annual sampling since 2007 and requires the results to be made public.
Ontario results in 2016-17 showed more than 640 schools and daycares failed lead tests, with one result reaching 6,710 ppb. The testing has caused hundreds of schools to replace problematic taps and fountains.
In B.C, mandatory annual testing was implemented in 2016. Tests collected over the next two years found 25 per cent of schools had levels above the previous 10 ppb guideline, with some exceeding that level by more than 100 times.
The office of Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange told Global News and Star Edmonton in a statement that provincial officials can assist schools that require expertise, but that the province doesn’t own schools and therefore questions should be directed to the schools and school boards. The provincial health department didn’t immediately respond to questions about mandatory testing. School boards that proactively did their own testing said that they informed parents of high results and restricted access or removed sources of lead when it was detected.
Calls for change
Marilyn Bergstra, a former trustee with the Edmonton Catholic School District, studied the issue as part of a graduate degree she pursued after leaving the school board. She says something needs to change.
“If you ask me, it’s negligence on the part of this province to let this continue to be ignored,” she said.
“Other provinces have seen alarmingly high lead levels in their water. They have acted. They are mitigating to keep the students in their province safe. We’re not even having the conversation,” she said.
“If you don’t know what you don’t know, you cannot take action to keep your children safe.”
The Calgary Catholic School District says that it has tested at 86 of 115 schools since 2017, in conjunction with Alberta Health Services. Data obtained through a freedom of information request shows that a quarter of all results that year exceeded the current guideline of five ppb, including one as high as 66.9 ppb. A spokesperson said the district replaced taps and added filters in schools with high results.
“My husband and I just assumed that, being in a large municipality, that lead is not an issue in water,” said Calgary parent Danica Marshall.
“The fact that they’re finding lead anywhere — let alone in the Catholic schools — is kind of scary because our kids drink that water.”
At the Elk Island Public Schools (EIPS), a school district near Edmonton, tests in 2016 of drinking fountains and taps revealed 11 of 41 schools had a sample exceeding the former 10 ppb guideline; 22 registered a sample that exceeded five ppb.
Five schools had a sample scoring higher than 20 ppb, with the highest result at Bev Facey High School at 59 ppb.
“It was an opportunity for us to get a baseline measure of where our schools were at but also to address any of the concerns or issues that had been brought to our attention at that time,” said EIPS superintendent Mark Liguori.
The documents were obtained as part of a year-long national investigation by more than 120 journalists at universities and news organizations, including MacEwan University, Mount Royal University, Global News and Star Edmonton, facilitated by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism.
Marc Edwards, a water treatment expert from Virginia Tech who helped raise red flags about the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, argues testing at education facilities is critical.
“Believe me, if you tested these schools and daycares that did not test, you would be horrified at what you find, and it’s simply unacceptable to keep allowing that irreparable harm, that unnecessary lead exposure, to continue,” he said.
After receiving the results, EIPS established protocols to flush pipes, replace faucets and pipes and convert to water bottle filling stations.
“As soon as we were made aware that there were some things that we needed to pay attention to, we focused on it and made sure that we mitigated it completely, just to ensure the health and safety of our students,” Liguori said.
The costs of testing and replacement of parts, which Liguori said totalled more than $100,000, were paid for by the school board.
Liguori said EIPS is testing all schools this year because federal guidelines changed.
The likely sources of the lead, according to government documents, are water fountains and internal plumbing.
A June 2018 Alberta Health memo contains a recommendation from the Chief Medical Officer to focus on the risk of lead exposure at schools and daycares: “A provincial approach is needed to assess and reduce the exposure of infants and young children to lead from drinking water in daycares, schools and their residences.”
An August 2018 briefing note from the Federal, Provincial, Territorial Committee on Health and the Environment reads that testing in schools and daycares should be prioritized “to ensure that the most sensitive population (i.e. young children) is captured.
“Sampling should be conducted at least once per year.”
But no provincial program has been established.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician who is credited with exposing that city’s water crisis, places the onus on politicians.
“I would pivot to our policy makers and our government that is charged with keeping us safe and healthy to put in some policies, to proactively respect the science of lead’s neurotoxicity, and eliminate children’s exposure,” she said.
Hanna-Attisha, who refers to lead as a poison, said that parents need to be aware that it is an ongoing issue.
“We thought we took care of lead. But it’s a problem of today and it’s a problem of tomorrow,” she said.
A survey conducted by reporters over the summer of Calgary and Edmonton’s 701 public, Catholic and Francophone schools revealed that only 123 opt to test their drinking water for lead. Of the six school districts in Edmonton and Calgary, only Calgary’s Catholic and Francophone school divisions have testing programs.
Edmonton Catholic School District spokesperson Lori Nagy said the board does not undergo regular testing because it is not mandated by the province, but staff work with Edmonton’s privately-run water utility EPCOR and AHS when concerns are identified and test results have always shown water to be at safe levels.
Edmonton Public Schools spokesperson Megan Normandeau said the district tests water quality during critical points of a school’s life cycle, including during renovations.
Normandeau referenced a 2007 study between EPCOR, Capital Health and the University of Alberta that deemed the district’s water quality “acceptable.”
“We are confident in the safety of our drinking water in all our schools,” Normandeau said in a statement.
Investigative reporters, MacEwan University: Shaela Dansereau, Cheyenne Juknies, Raysa Marcondes, Sarah Spisak and Ishita Verma. Faculty supervisors: Steve Lillebuen, MacEwan University; Janice Paskey, Mount Royal University
Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University: Series producer: Patti Sonntag; Research coordinator: Michael Wrobel; Project coordinator: Colleen Kimmett
Mount Royal University, Journalism Program
Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University
See the full list of “Tainted Water” series credits here: concordia.ca/watercredits.