The signs cover every drinking fountain in the halls of a Central Alberta school: “Do not drink water from this tap.”
Condor School, part of the Wild Rose School Division west of Red Deer, is not taking any chances that its students could drink contaminated water after testing revealed lead levels in its tap water hit federal guidelines.
Jugs of water are being trucked in every two weeks and filtration devices will soon be installed at the school, which has 170 students from kindergarten to Grade 7.
The school division’s lead testing was triggered after an investigation into lead in drinking water by media organizations and universities including Global News, the Toronto Star and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism prompted the Ministry of Education to send a letter to all school board chairs and superintendents outlining how Alberta Health Services (AHS) is available to help with testing.
At least 50 school divisions have reached out to AHS for information or support about lead in their drinking water since then, according to spokesperson Kerry Williamson.
The calls for help come after two years of repeated written requests from public servants seeking approval from the then-NDP government for stronger oversight of school drinking water, including a program that would see public health inspectors “assist with sampling, evaluating results and mitigation measures.”
That program has never been announced.
Mike Lundstrom, director of facilities and maintenance for the Wild Rose School Division, said the issue of lead in school drinking water wasn’t something the school board had looked at extensively and that it had never done division-wide testing before. The board acted on the letter and tested water at three wells servicing three different schools in November.
The results, which the school division received this month, revealed lead levels at the well associated with Condor School hit 5 ppb, the maximum allowable concentration set by Health Canada. The well linked to David Thompson High School tested at 0.5 ppb while the one connected to Leslieville School tested at 2 ppb.
“I was surprised,” Lundstrom said about Condor School’s results.
“It was then a matter of, how do we manage this? How do we look after the occupants of the building?”
A second round of tests showed different results, according to superintendent Brad Volkman. He said the district plans to do additional testing and the school will continue to use jug water and filtration devices as a precaution.
Exposure to lead, a neurotoxin that can leach from pipes and plumbing into tap water, has been linked to intellectual disabilities and a loss of IQ points in children, according to experts, who also say there is no safe level of lead for children or adults.
Condor School principal Cheryl Kalev said she was surprised and concerned when she heard about the first round of test results.
“I sent my secretary right away to go cover the water fountains,” Kalev said.
“It was a Monday morning. I had [my secretary] go to the teachers – if the kids had water in their water bottles over the weekend, to go dump them.”
Kalev said the safety of students and staff is her number one priority.
The school’s parent council chair, Tessa Rancier, said she is happy with how promptly the school acted to fix the problem.
“We know immediately that the water is obviously meeting the acceptable standards,” she said.
Plans are in the works to analyze water at the remaining 12 schools in the division, according to Lundstrom, though no specific timeline was given.
No decision has been made yet on whether the school division will assess its water regularly for lead, Lundstrom said.
Calls for mandatory testing
Some provinces, such as Ontario and B.C., require schools to test their water on a scheduled basis and results have been as high as 6,710 ppb, hundreds of times above the recommended federal safety limit.
But there is no mandatory testing in Alberta schools. School divisions need to take the initiative to test their water, meaning many are in the dark about what their students consume.
That uncertainty is uncomfortable for Kalev, the principal, who said she favours mandatory testing at schools.
“Now that we’ve experienced this, I personally think mandatory testing would be a good idea. I would see no reason to not test,” she said. “We want our kids to be safe.”
It was not immediately clear why the government hasn’t yet acted on internal advice recommending a provincial inventory of schools and fountains that contain lead, along with a sampling program of tap water.
The ministry staff document requesting approval for more rigorous oversight of drinking water testing was written in August 2017 to an assistant deputy minister.
“This lead monitoring program in schools would help improve the health of children in Alberta by reducing their exposure to lead in their formative years,” said the briefing note, released to journalism students from Mount Royal University, MacEwan University and the Institute for Investigative Journalism through freedom of information legislation.
A separate June 2018 Alberta Health memo also said that the chief medical officer had made similar recommendations.
A few months later, an August 2018 briefing note from the Federal, Provincial, Territorial Committee on Health and the Environment reiterated 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.”
Separate advice, prepared for former NDP Health Minister Sarah Hoffman on Oct. 16, 2018, indicated that the government was still developing a program to support schools and daycares assess the risk of lead in drinking water. It isn’t clear whether that advice reached the then-minister.
Hoffman, now the education critic, issued a statement Wednesday saying the UCP should “act immediately” to assist schools and conduct further lead testing.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was not made available for an interview. Instead, her ministry provided a statement hinting that changes may be coming but did not respond directly to a question about making testing compulsory.
Steve Buick, a spokesperson for health minister Tyler Shandro, said in an email that lead testing in schools will remain voluntary.
“Alberta Health and Alberta Education are working on a new approach to support all schools and daycares that want to have their water tested, with no added costs. We’ll announce details early in the coming year,” he said.
See the full list of “Tainted Water” series credits here: concordia.ca/watercredits.