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How safe is the drinking water at Montreal’s English schools?

How widespread is lead contamination in Montreal’s English schools?
WATCH: How widespread is lead contamination in Montreal's English schools?

It’s early on a chilly Friday morning in November at Sunshine Academy in Dollard-Des-Ormeaux.

Minsoo Cho is hoping to get fresh samples of the tap water that has been sitting overnight in the elementary school’s pipes and plumbing.

“I’ve taken a lot of samples. There could be samples that contain certain levels of lead,” Cho tells Global News during her visit to the school.

READ MORE: How lead levels in 5 Canadian cities compared to those in Flint, Mich.

Cho is a doctoral student in civil engineering at McGill University. She had to be there at dawn, before anyone opened any taps.

Water that has been in contact with lead pipes for long periods is most likely to have a higher concentration of lead. So by measuring these samples, she can determine what the maximum exposure of lead could be for the students in this school.

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All this depends on whether the plumbing fixtures contain any lead.

“I’m taking different types of samples at different locations in the school at different times to make sure kids are not exposed to any lead,” Cho explains.

Opposition leaders demand government action on lead risk in Nova Scotia homes
Opposition leaders demand government action on lead risk in Nova Scotia homes

Since October, Cho had gathered samples at 14 different West Island schools at Lester B. Pearson School Board. The samples were stored and have not yet been tested. She also plans to visit more next spring.

The results will provide answers about tap water at a time when a series of reports by Global News, Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism and other media partners have found that the water may be tainted with lead in thousands of schools across Canada.

Most schools aren’t actually testing, since provinces don’t require them to do so, but some have started to check their taps and fountains proactively, finding that their water isn’t safe.

READ MORE: Children in schools and daycares across Canada are exposed to unsafe water

“We were quite fortuitous,” says Lester B. Pearson School Board (LBPSB) Assistant Director General Carol Heffernan.

“We actually have a jump over other school boards in the province.”

At the end of October, Quebec asked all schools to test their water for lead. Elementary schools are supposed to complete testing by June 2020, high schools and other buildings by November 2020.

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Global News asked the education ministry how it planned to ensure the testing takes place and whether there would be sanctions for any school that fails to test, but the government didn’t immediately respond.

All lead services replaced in distribution system in 1989: Peterborough Utilities
All lead services replaced in distribution system in 1989: Peterborough Utilities

Right now, the extent of the problem in English schools isn’t clear at all, which has caused concern among parents.

“It’s actually a serious issue,” says Domenica del Torio, who has two children attending Sunshine Academy. “We’re talking about our kids, their health.”

According to the Lester B. Pearson Board, six out of their 52 schools were tested two years ago as part of a public health study.

Some Alberta daycares and schools may contain high levels of lead in drinking water
Some Alberta daycares and schools may contain high levels of lead in drinking water

“Other than the testing in 2017 when they tested the six schools, we haven’t done any testing on our own,” Heffernan tells Global News. “It’s not a requirement with the Ministry of Education and the Régie des Bâtiments du Quebec.”

The English Montreal School Board (EMSB) was unable to provide any information about past testing.

“We do so many tests on so many things, I cannot give you a precise answer on lead in schools and what may or may not have been done,” says EMSB spokesman Mike Cohen.

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READ MORE: How safe is the drinking water at Montreal’s English schools?

In July, Global News, the IIJ and Le Devoir reported that public health scientists had sent the government a report, warning that children across the province were at risk due to inadequate oversight on taps and fountains.

But Lester B. Pearson schools are starting to get answers about how much they’re affected. McGill reached out to the school board in the summer, offering to test their water for copper as part of Cho’s doctoral thesis project.

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

“We took advantage of that and asked them at the same time could you test lead in the water and they agreed to do so,” explains Heffernan.

Cho only called Lester B. because she doesn’t speak any French, and they happened to be the first on her list of boards to reach out to.

“Right away, they were like ‘we want to do this’ and they were willing to take action we found any concerning lead levels,” Cho says.

“The school board told me there is no lead in the service lines — which connects from [the] water main to the school. If there’s any lead, it will be from the solders, fixtures, or faucets.”

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

“With schools, it’s probably going to be a small amount affected,” says Susan Gaskin, a civil engineer with McGill and Cho’s doctoral supervisor. “There may be just one or two plumbing bits in the school that have to be changed, but it’s much better to find them.”

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Studies have shown prolonged lead exposure in kids can affect IQ and cause other health problems later in life.

“It affects them more because they’re developing,” says Gaskin.

The EMSB recently sent a letter to parents, saying they will follow the government’s instructions for lead testing.

“The department charged with this responsibility is already delegating chores,” Cohen says.

Although it’s not possible to taste lead in water, Gaskin says kids may be doing their own filtering.

“Children are actually very good at tasting water and deciding what tastes good and what doesn’t taste good, so the children probably self-select,” she says.

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READ MORE: Some Alberta daycares and schools may contain high levels of lead in drinking water

Eleven-year-old Sunshine Academy student Gia Shandal said she doesn’t like drinking the tap water at her school.

“I don’t know how to describe it, it’s kind of bitter sometimes,” she says.

“I don’t drink the water from the fountains,” says another young student, Stefano de Torio. “I don’t like it.”

Their parents told Global News they’re more comfortable giving their children water from outside the school.