Many children in schools and daycares across Canada are likely being exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water and don’t know it, because most provinces aren’t requiring comprehensive testing at the taps, according to a collection of provincial studies and internal briefing material.
The internal briefing material included memos and other advice prepared for high-ranking government officials in several provinces. These documents were released through freedom of information legislation to Global News as part of a joint year-long investigation into drinking water in partnership with Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism and other media organizations.
The documents reveal that provincial governments were warned that children were at risk. But most haven’t taken action to mitigate those risks by requiring mandatory testing.
Lead in drinking water in schools generally comes from internal plumbing fixtures and fountains that contain traces of the neurotoxin. Unlike the lead service lines installed across Canada in hundreds of thousands of houses or apartment buildings with eight dwellings or less, the underground pipes linking buildings such as schools to water mains rarely contain lead.
That’s because lead is too soft a material for the larger supply pipes these buildings require.
Ontario is the only province that requires all schools and daycares to test their water. The results show that more than 2,400 schools and daycares in the province have had water that exceeded the current federal guideline for lead in drinking water in the past two years, according to an analysis by the Toronto Star and the Ryerson School of Journalism.
Schools and daycares in Ontario are required to take immediate action to prevent children from drinking water at taps following tests that show high lead levels.
British Columbia requires testing in schools only and has also measured high levels of lead in many of them, requiring action.
In both provinces, the comprehensive testing has consistently resulted in thousands of test results that found high levels of lead, including a few cases in which the water had lead levels that measured thousands of times above Health Canada’s recommended limit of 5 parts per billion (ppb).
Experts say these results raise serious concerns about what lead levels could be at the schools and daycares that aren’t testing their drinking water.
“Believe me, if you tested these schools and daycares that did not test, you’d be horrified at what you’d find,” said Virginia Tech engineering professor Marc Edwards, who is credited for having exposed the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Some provincial documents also show that public servants repeatedly called for more action to protect the health of children, without any immediate response.
For example, in Alberta, never-before-published results of a 2017 daycare study conducted by the province reveal more than 10 per cent of the 150 daycares studied exceeded previous Health Canada guidelines of 10 ppb. The document also warned that lead levels were high enough in some of the drinking water to push blood levels of children beyond a limit recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
The province’s chief medical officer also urged the government to focus on addressing the risks faced by children, according to a June 2018 memo that was sent to an official in the provincial Health Department.
Several briefing notes were prepared with additional advice for ministers, some of which was censored, prior to release through freedom of information legislation. Officials also repeatedly noted in the documents that testing wasn’t mandatory.
The World Health Organization says that any exposure to lead can cause harm to humans.
The neurotoxin has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and kidney problems in adults. It has also been known to cause complications during pregnancy.
In children, lead is especially dangerous. It can cause behavioural problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or even result in a loss of IQ points.
“You name it and lead probably contributes to that condition,” said Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who has treated patients in Flint, Michigan.
“So children exposed to lead will have higher rates of heart disease, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, early dementia, gout, anemia — I mean, the list goes on of what childhood exposure to lead can also cause later in life.”
Among some of the other findings of the investigation:
A study published in June by Quebec’s public health institute found that in a small number of schools, lead levels at the tap were high enough to impact IQ levels by one to three points on average — and up to seven points — at the most affected schools, based on existing scientific evidence. But the true scope of the problem remains unclear, the study concludes, due to a “scarcity” of data in Quebec which has historically not required lead testing in schools and daycares.
Following publication of this investigation’s findings in Quebec in July, and subsequent media reports, including a separate investigation by La Presse, the province’s education ministry told school boards across the province in October that it hoped they would test all taps within the next few months. The government has also said it plans to increase testing at daycares, but it hasn’t formally introduced any new regulations for either the schools or the daycares.
The provincial family ministry said it would pay for the costs of testing taps at daycares in order to ensure water is safe.
While Alberta does not require lead testing in schools, the Calgary Catholic School District found a quarter of the 86 schools it tested since 2017 had at least one tap that exceeded the federal guideline of five ppb.
And in 2016, testing in 42 schools in one of the province’s largest school boards near Edmonton turned up 22 with lead levels that exceed the current federal guideline. The office of 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.
In Nova Scotia, lead test results in schools are not posted publicly and there is no central database of lead results from the province’s schools and daycares. But data obtained through a freedom of information request reveals a patchwork of testing across the province.
Lead results from schools and daycares on well water show sometimes dramatic exceedances that repeat for years. The overwhelming majority of test results from one Pictou County elementary school — 111 of 119 — exceeded the federal guideline dating back to 2010 with readings reaching as high as 65 ppb in its treated water. The school has been on a bottled water advisory since 2012. Tests from a dozen more mostly rural schools and daycares show lead exceedances that reach beyond five times the federal guideline of five ppb without public posting.
Manitoba is working on a testing plan, according to documents released by freedom of information legislation. In February, an official from the Office of Drinking Water said the province would request all school divisions to test each of their drinking water fountains and taps by the end of the 2020-2021 school year, starting with the most frequently-used fountain. This plan was outlined in an internal presentation by an official from the provincial office. School divisions would be responsible for maintaining records of their test results, the presentation said.
Since British Columbia brought in new rules in 2016 requiring schools to test for lead in drinking water, more than 600 schools have reported at least one water sample that failed to meet the recommended national safety limit. In all, more than 7,500 tests exceeded the federal guideline. This includes some results that are thousands of times higher than the guideline of 5 ppb.
Newfoundland and Labrador
In response to an access to information request, Newfoundland and Labrador disclosed results from tap water sampling done in schools in 2001 and 2002. With the exception of one water fountain tested in 2017, the province has not sampled water more recently.
After elevated lead levels were found on university campuses in Fredericton, New Brunswick’s education ministry tested all water fountains and faucets used for food prep in the province’s public schools. Of the nearly 2,000 fountains tested between 2011 and 2014, approximately 250 were removed from service. In 150 cases, the solution was to replace the old water fountain with a newer, lead-free one.
In other cases, a water treatment system was installed at the school to make the water less likely to leach lead out of plumbing components. Some problematic fountains were simply deactivated if there were other fountains at the school with low lead levels.
Last summer, Yukon sampled water from fountains and classroom, kitchen and bathroom faucets in its 18 schools built before 1990, according to data posted on a government website. Testing showed lead levels exceeded 20 ppb at 162 fixtures after water had been stagnant in the pipes for 16 to 24 hours. Fixtures that failed the test were replaced and retested. Schools built after 1990 were tested this summer, with the results showing fewer problems in these newer buildings.
For buildings that have not released public data, the only way parents can know about water quality issues is by contacting the schools and daycares directly, asking if the water has been tested, in addition to requesting copies of results.
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.
“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.”
Kelly Skjerven, Kenzie MacLaren — Ryerson School of Journalism
Investigative reporters, Ryerson School of Journalism:
Declan Keogh, Victoria Shariati, Ben Cohen, Charles Buckley
Investigative Reporting Fellows, Institute for Investigative Journalism:
Alannah Page (Mount Royal University); Lyndsay Armstrong (University of King’s College); Dylanna Fisher (MacEwan University); Declan Keogh (Ryerson University)
Investigative reporters, MacEwan University:
Shaela Dansereau, Raysa Marcondes, Sarah Spisak and Ishita Verma.
Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University:
Series producer: Patti Sonntag
Research coordinator: Michael Wrobel
Concordia University, Department of Journalism
Ryerson University, School of Journalism
University of King’s College, School of Journalism
Global News: Mike De Souza, Megan Robinson, Carolyn Jarvis, Elizabeth McSheffrey, Julia Wong, Heather Yourex-West
Data Analysis: Andrew Bailey
Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University
See the full list of “Tainted Water” series credits here: concordia.ca/watercredits.