One in four Ontario schools and daycares found lead in tap water last year

One out of every four Ontario schools and daycares that tested their tap water and reported their results found at least one sample that exceeded the recommended national safety limit for lead in drinking water in 2019, according to new provincial data analyzed by Global News and the Star.

The numbers are based on a sample of about 7,000 schools and daycares that reported their test results of tap water samples in the 2018-2019 year. Under provincial law, most high schools are not required to submit test results until January 2022. Of those that did report, about 1,900 schools and daycares found at least one tap water sample with lead levels exceeding five parts per billion (ppb) — Health Canada’s recommended limit of lead in drinking water.

Click to play video: 'Tainted Water: Are the fountains safe?'
Tainted Water: Are the fountains safe?

At Upper Canada College, one of Ontario’s priciest private schools, 88 of the 478 tests  — or 18 per cent — exceeded the Health Canada guideline. 

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“The well-being and safety of our community is a central priority at Upper Canada College,” the Toronto boys’ school said in a written statement. “UCC has and will continue to conduct regular sampling and testing of all drinking water fixtures across campus in accordance with the Provincial Safe Drinking Water Act.”

A year-long national investigation by more than 120 journalists from nine universities and 10 media organizations, including Global News, the Toronto Star and the Institute for Investigative Journalism at Concordia University in Montreal, analyzed public test results from water in thousands of Ontario schools and daycares.

The findings published in November, in which two previous years of lead testing data was analyzed, showed more than 2,400 Ontario schools and daycares had at least one test that exceeded the federal guideline for lead in drinking water. 

The new data from the 2018-19 school year, which compiles all reported water test samples from public and private schools as well as daycares, shows a slight increase in the percentage of lead exceedances over the previous two years — up from nine per cent of all tests to 11 per cent. 

There is no provincial policy mandating school boards to report lead exceedances to parents and students. In November, Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said parents and students could be better informed when lead overages are found in their schools, saying, “I’ve spoken with the minister of education to look to how we can remedy this situation going forward. … We know we can do better.”

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No policy changes have followed.

At University of Toronto Schools — a prestigious Toronto private school temporarily operating out of a building on Humbert Street in Toronto — there were 31 exceedances of the federal guideline, which adds up to about 21 per cent of all tests in that school.

Rosemary Evans, principal of the school with 667 students in Grades 7 to 12, said the high lead levels prompted staff to cap off a drinking fountain and place “hand washing only” signs on sinks in science labs, classrooms and bathrooms.

Click to play video: 'The secrets of Canada’s tap water, explained'
The secrets of Canada’s tap water, explained

Following publication of the investigation in November, the school sent information to parents and students in response to questions about lead. But the messaging did not detail the number or nature of exceedances at the school, Evans said. She said a clear ministry policy would help guide schools in what they should be communicating to parents and students.

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“If everybody had to conform to the same standard, that would help. If it applied across the board to all schools, that would clarify the expectations. I think it’s a necessity to pay attention. This is a significant health issue. You have to find a way to meet the standard.”

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Over the past three years, dozens of schools and daycares have measured dramatic lead spikes above 1,000 ppb — a level experts say can immediately impact blood lead levels in a child and risk harm to cognitive development. Last year alone, 13 schools and daycares broke the 1,000 ppb level in their test results. 

For nearly two decades, one water fountain inside Woodbridge’s Lorna Jackson Public School dispensed drinking water to students without being tested for lead. 

When school officials did water testing in 2018, they discovered some of the highest lead spikes in the province, including the single highest reading in Ontario last year at 7,150 ppb along with another at 1,880 ppb and an overall exceedance rate of 54 per cent.

All of the high readings were taken from a single water fountain, said Kori Zsigmond, environmental safety officer with the York Region District School Board.

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“We tried to troubleshoot. We replaced components and valves. But I could never pinpoint the cause. … I wish I had a definitive answer on where it came from.”

The exceedances were logged over a 10-month period between May 2018 and February 2019, the data shows. The school, which has 450 students, ultimately removed the fountain from use in November of last year, Zsigmond said. 

Click to play video: 'Solutions to stop lead leaching into Canadian water'
Solutions to stop lead leaching into Canadian water

John XXIII Elementary School in North Bay (amalgamated in 2014 to Holy Cross) also logged two exceedances above 1,000 ppb (1,740 and 1,610 ppb) and an overall exceedance of 50 per cent with 12 tests over the national guideline. 

Nine of the exceedances were from three fixtures that were removed and replaced with one new fixture and plumbing, said Kate Bondett, a spokesperson with the Nipissing-Parry Sound Catholic District School Board. 

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Two other fixtures in exceedance “have tested under five ppb when flushed and continue to be flushed daily prior to school opening for the day,” said Bondett in a statement. “We continue to adhere to provincial guidelines and act diligently when test results indicate action is required.”

Health Canada adopted the five ppb guideline last year — cutting it in half from 10 ppb — in response to growing concerns about the long-term health risks from lead. With a grey area between old and new standards, schools and daycares that fall below the provincial threshold aren’t reported as an exceedance and parents with children in hundreds of Ontario schools and daycares with high levels of lead haven’t been notified.

While Ontario continues to use a 10 ppb threshold for lead in water, the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation, and Parks said it’s reviewing Health Canada’s updated guideline.

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“The Ministry has communicated in past outreach materials to stakeholders that the standard might be dropping to five µg/L and recommended proactive measures to assess fixtures with levels between five and 10 µg/L.”

Ontario is the only province that regulates annual testing of water intended for drinking and cooking in all provincial schools and daycares.

However, as the province considers adapting to the new federal guideline, schools and daycares with lead results between five and 10 ppb are not required to take corrective action.

In a recent assessment of scientific literature, released in 2019, Health Canada said that lead can be harmful even at low levels, since it is a poison that accumulates in the body over time.

Katie Gibbs lives in Ottawa with her young family. Her toddler son attends a daycare in that city and to Gibbs’ knowledge, it’s never been flagged to parents for high levels of lead in its drinking water.

“It definitely is not something that’s been on our radar,” she said.

The daycare, Florence Child Care, showed standing test results of five parts per billion in both the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years. But, with results under the provincial limit of 10 parts per billion, the daycare has no requirement to alert parents.

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“Parents should at least know these things when they’re sending their kids to school or daycare and be aware of it. And then ideally, steps should be taken to reduce the amount, as close to zero as possible.”

With aging infrastructure across the province, Ontario schools face a backlog of repairs, totalling almost $16 billion.

While replacing pipes and fixtures is a costly, long-term solution, experts say lead-clearing filters can be used to help mitigate exposure to lead.

“That seems kind of like a no brainer to me,” said Gibbs. “It’s not that expensive and especially when you’re dealing with kids, which is where lead can be the most dangerous and problematic.”

In November, Global News asked Florence Child Care if it planned to take precautionary steps against lead consumption in water. 

“While our program has met the provincial standards, a parent recently shared the World Health Organization’s stance on lead consumption,” said Florence Child Care director Kelly Blake in an email. “As a result, our program immediately began using the Brita Longlast Filter, which removes 99 percent of lead, as a precautionary step against lead consumption.” 

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Gibbs was pleased the daycare was being proactive.

“It’s an easy solution, especially since we know that no amount of lead is safe.”

— With files from Andrew Bailey, Toronto Star

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