After a groundbreaking investigation on lead contamination in water at Nova Scotia schools, the Halifax Regional Centre for Education has confirmed that not a single one of its schools connected to municipal water systems has been tested.
The provincial government has known since March that under new, stricter federal guidelines for lead, every school on municipal water would need to start testing at its taps, fixtures and fountains.
But to date, only 44 out of 220 such schools in Nova Scotia have done so, and more than half detected dangerous lead levels flowing from at least one water source.
“This is really concerning, I have four kids in the school system, so certainly, it has my attention,” said Tim Halman, education critic for the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservatives.
“Government needs to get to work on this immediately and where it’s needed, I think alternative water sources are required.”
Halman said there’s no excuse for HRCE not to have tested its own taps, given how long it’s known about the new federal rules.
In an emailed statement, HRCE confirmed it will test an estimated 5,000 faucets and fountains in 139 school buildings in June of 2020 — enough time to bring staff up to speed.
“This includes reviewing floor plans for each building to confirm how water moves within the building,” wrote spokesperson Doug Hadley.
“We are also training staff to ensure the water samples are collected according to guidelines and sent to an accredited lab for sample analysis.”
Lead is a neurotoxin that can have serious health impacts on children, even in small concentrations. There’s no level of lead that’s safe for human consumption, and in kids, exposure is linked to ADHD, lowered IQ and developmental disorders.
While all the province’s schools drawing from wells have been testing their water regularly, schools on municipal systems relied on municipal testing, prior to the federal limit changing from 10 parts per billion (ppb) to five ppb.
Experts, however, confirm that the lead risk in school water does not typically come from municipal systems. It comes from the taps, fountains and plumbing.
Fourty-four schools on municipal systems tested their own water for the first time this fall, and of the 36 for which results are available, 23 had levels above five ppb. That’s 64 per cent, or nearly two-thirds.
Asked if he’s concerned whether students in the Halifax area may be drinking an unknown quantity of lead in between now and HRCE testing this spring, Hadley declined to speculate.
“We know Halifax Water conducts rigorous testing on the municipal water supply at the source and at various points within the distribution system, and they alert the HRCE to any and all potential concerns as they do for homeowners.”
In the meantime, other regional education centres have confirmed that affected taps and fountains in their jurisdictions have been taken out of service. They’ve also posted signage in the recently-impacted schools, notified parents and teachers, and in some cases, brought in bottled water, as well.
However, the education department notes that not all of those taps were necessarily used for drinking.
“For example, some taps are for handwashing only, or washroom faucets,” wrote ministry spokesperson JoAnn Alberstat in an email.
Education Minister Zach Churchill was unavailable to comment on this story on Monday.
In October, a joint investigation by Global News, the Star Halifax, student journalists at the University of King’s College and other partners, revealed that the scale of lead contamination in Nova Scotia schools is unknown due to a patchwork regime of testing, data collection and reporting. The project was co-ordinated by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism.
An analysis of data obtained online and through freedom of information requests reveals that in the last 10 years, at least 24 schools and day cares across Nova Scotia have had lead levels in excess of Health Canada’s current guideline.
Scotsburn Elementary in Pictou County, whose water has been consistently contaminated by lead, even had a result of 130 ppb — 26 times the current limit.
The Nova Scotia Teachers Union met with Churchill on Friday in response to these findings, and to inquire about who will conduct testing inside school walls.
Union president Paul Wozney told Global News he’s deeply concerned by the new results from the 44 schools on municipal water, as it represents a grave health risk to children and teachers.
He also said it’s “not acceptable” from an occupational health and safety standpoint.
“We’re really encouraging our members, when they have those concerns, to take them to their occupational health and safety committee,” he said. “According to provincial legislation there’s a duty there to ensure water is safe.
“… If they can’t provide evidence that water is safe, they’ve got to provide safe water and they’ve got to do that right away.”
Responding to the Tainted Water series published by Global News and a handful of outlets nationwide, Churchill has assured that every school in the province will be tested by the end of the school year. Eighty-six have been tested since the guideline change in March, leaving 176 untested this year.
“Regional centres for education/CSAP must test their schools during warmer months, as per the guidelines,” wrote Alberstat.
“If test results show elevated lead levels under the new guidelines, regions/CSAP (Conseil scolaire acadien provincial) have a plan in place to ensure the community is notified immediately, and students and staff have an alternate drinking water supply until the issue can be remedied.”
The department has also promised to create a centralized public database of test results, which will be up and running by fall of 2020.
Wozney applauds the province for that commitment, but said waiting for the spring to have certainty on water safety in every Nova Scotia school isn’t good enough. Schools should have been tested at the first opportunity, he said — in June or October of this year.
“If school-based leadership can’t show teachers in schools, parents and students that water is safe, they’ve got to turn off the taps regardless,” Wozney said.
“Maybe it’s safe, maybe it’s not safe, but they have to ensure that a safe water supply is available to every student and teacher in every school.”
New results from schools on municipal water systems:
- Annapolis Valley Regional Centre for Education — 24 of 42 schools are on municipal water, and nine of those were tested in October: Clark Rutherford Memorial School, Dwight Ross School, Falmouth District School, Hantsport School, Lawrencetown Consolidated School, Lawrencetown Education Centre, Port Williams Elementary School, Three Mile Plains District School, and Windsor Elementary School. Spokesperson Kristen Loyst said samples from seven of the nine schools exceeded the Health Canada guideline. Samples from Clark Rutherford Memorial School and Three Mile Plains District School were under 5 ppb.
- Chignecto Central Regional Centre for Education — 35 of 67 schools are on municipal water, and five were tested in October: GR Saunders Elementary, Trenton Elementary, West End Memorial, Junction Road Elementary, and Debert Elementary. The regional centre has received test results back for all five, and Trenton Elementary is the only one where none of the fixtures tested contained lead. Spokesperson Jennifer Rodgers said the rest of the regional centre’s schools on municipal water will be tested in the spring. “We are starting with our oldest schools that have our youngest children in attendance,” she wrote in an email.
- Cape Breton-Victoria Regional Centre for Education — 29 of 39 schools are on municipal water, and 11 of those were tested in October: Brookland Elementary, Coxheath Elementary, Cusack Elementary, Ferrisview Elementary, Glace Bay Elementary, Greenfield Elementary, Harbourside Elementary, Jubilee Elementary, Shipyard Elementary, St Annes Elementary, and Tompkins Elementary. Six of those schools had at least one tap or fountain with lead levels above 5 ppb. Cusack Elementary is now on bottled water, according to regional centre spokesperson Michelle MacLeod.
- Strait Regional Centre for Education 15 of 20 schools are on municipal water, and they were all tested in October and early November. Spokesperson Deanna Gillis said the centre has received test results back from 11 of the 15, and six of those tested for lead above 5 ppb: Bayview Education Centre, Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School, East Richmond Education Centre, St. Andrew Junior School, St. Andrews Consolidated School, and St. Mary’s Education Centre/Academy.
- Tri-County Regional Centre for Education — eight of 22 schools are on municipal water supplies. Regional director Chris Boulter said two of those were tested in late October: Lockeport Elementary and Hillcrest Academy. The regional centre is still waiting for results.
- South Shore Regional Centre for Education — eight of 24 schools are on municipal water, and two were tested in October: Dr. John C. Wickwire Academy and Bluenose Academy. Paul Ash, director of the regional centre, said in an email that the results “have not been returned yet.”