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McNeil calls lead investigation ‘concerning’ but defers commitment to act

WATCH: A joint investigation has revealed that there is a widespread lead risk in schools and homes on wells. But as Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, the premier is deferring any commitment to act on the health risk.

Nova Scotia’s premier says it’s “concerning” that hundreds of thousands of residents, including children, could be exposed to lead in their drinking water, but won’t immediately commit to any new action to mitigate the health risk.

Stephen McNeil said he expects his departments of education and environment to bring recommendations forward to deal with the risk of widespread lead contamination in schools, daycares and homes on private wells, identified by Global News and the Star Halifax in investigations published this week.

The ministers in charge of those departments, however, have not outlined additional plans to tackle lead exposure, beyond steps identified prior to the publication of the findings.

“I know the conversation certainly happened in my own house about our drinking water, what does that look like, how do we test it?” McNeil told reporters on Thursday. “Certainly, it’s concerning… I expect we’ll have recommendations when I return back from China.”

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Tainted water: how to know if your child is protected
Tainted water: how to know if your child is protected

On Wednesday, the Tainted Water series revealed that the scale of lead contamination in the province’s schools is unknown due to inconsistent water testing and reporting, with at least 24 schools and daycares having had elevated lead levels in the past 10 years.

Earlier this week, the outlets also reported that nearly a quarter of a million Nova Scotians may be exposed to the dangerous neurotoxin through their well water, in a regulatory regime that does not require homeowners to test for it.

In response to the findings on schools, Education Minister Zach Churchill reiterated a previous commitment to create a public database of water testing results in schools and daycares by the fall of 2020.

READ MORE: Tainted water in Nova Scotia — how do I get the lead out?

He also declined, for the second time, to confirm that schools on municipal water systems never tested for lead at their taps until a new Health Canada guideline for lead was created earlier this year.

“Testing will be completed this spring and the centralized database will be up and running by next school year,” he said, adding that the department is in compliance with the new federal guidelines.

Health Canada, however, recommends that lead sampling at schools and daycares be conducted in June or October to “capture typical exposure levels” when the building is occupied.

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Based on the minister’s statement, the department will miss the dates identified as federal best practices if lead testing continues from now until next spring.

In an emailed statement, the department confirmed that 92 of 370 schools have been tested the results of which are still coming in.

Education Minister Zach Churchill fields questions from reporters about lead in school water on Oct. 30, 2019 at Province House.
Education Minister Zach Churchill fields questions from reporters about lead in school water on Oct. 30, 2019 at Province House. Zane Woodford/Star Halifax

Environment Minister Gordon Wilson maintained his previous position that testing for lead is the homeowner’s responsibility and the government is not considering a program that would subsidize those costs any further.

He did not commit to any new lead awareness efforts but said education and awareness falls under his purview.

“It’s interesting that some people aren’t aware of what’s in their water,” he explained.

“I wouldn’t say that we’re failing, but I certainly think it’s always a challenge, that awareness, regardless of what it is, and communication is important. And again, the media on this certainly does help with that.”

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READ MORE: N.S. Opposition demands action after investigation finds widespread risk of lead exposure

It’s unclear what kind of recommendations either minister will make to the premier between now and when he returns from his trade mission to China, Japan and South Korea on Nov. 23.

McNeil deferred questions about whether the province would change testing requirements for lead to Wilson, who reiterated the importance of lead awareness when asked what actions his department would take based on findings of widespread risk in wells and schools.

“As we transition through these new changes that we’re seeing from Health Canada, we certainly are going to look at seeing if it affects any of the protocols that we have with registered drinking water supplies,” said Wilson, “and obviously ensure again, Nova Scotians are aware that the limits have changed and it’s paramount for them to do testing.”

None of the comments address calls from opposition parties in Nova Scotia for the government to provide free water testing to Nova Scotians on wells, to keep a database of which wells in the province have been tested, and to issue reminders of when it’s time to re-test.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill, who has a bill on the table that deals with subsidized water testing, accused the province of complacency in its response.

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“This is the same complacency that we’ve seen in the government’s position with private wells — well, it’s just a matter for private individuals to look after their own wells, there’s no role for the government in their view,” he explained. “They should be on this post-double-haste.”

Thousands of Nova Scotians at risk of lead exposure from wells
Thousands of Nova Scotians at risk of lead exposure from wells

Tainted Water is the largest journalism collaboration in Canadian history, involving more than 120 journalists across the country, nine universities, the Institute for Investigative Journalism, and 10 media outlets, including Global News and the Star Halifax. Over the past year, the collective analyzed 79,000 water testing results from taps in 33 cities, along with thousands of pages of data from access to information requests.

Its findings — that hundreds of thousands of Canadians may have been exposed to dangerous lead levels — have sparked calls from coast to coast for a stronger regulatory stance on lead at the federal, provincial and municipal levels.

The government of Quebec responded immediately to findings in its own province with a policy change that tightens the accuracy of lead tests in homes, while the City of Montreal committed to removing lead pipes, both on the public and private sides of property lines, partially on its own dime.

Ontario Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said his office is reviewing whether to lower Ontario’s lead threshold from 10 parts per billion (ppb) to five ppb to meet the current federal guideline, and the City of Regina says it’s reviewing its Lead Service Connections program to make improvements.

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An online petition has also been created, with nearly 5,000 signatures supporting calls on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to create a national drinking water standard with mandatory lead testing, adequately fund municipalities to start replacing lead pipes, and end all boil water advisories on Indigenous reserves.