Students and staff return to class in a matter of days, but across Nova Scotia, the safety of drinking water in some schools remains in question.
Last year, the Nova Scotia government promised to test all water in schools for lead — a dangerous neurotoxin — and publish those results in a centralized database by the start of the school year.
However, no such database exists online as of Friday and the delay has parent and teacher advocates worried about access to safe drinking water in classrooms, in the scramble to reopen safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“On a school-by-school basis there’s no consistent policy on safe drinking water and that has everything to do with the lack of publication of test results,” said Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union on Friday.
“The database was supposed to be up and published and the fact is, we still have schools that don’t know whether the water coming out of their taps is safe.”
Exposure to lead poses serious health risks to developing brains and is linked with ADHD, developmental disorders and lowered IQ in children.
In 2019, an investigation by Global News and the Star Halifax revealed that in the past 10 years, at least 24 schools across the province have had lead levels exceeding Health Canada’s current limit of five parts per billion.
The Tainted Water series, carried out in partnership with Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, the University of King’s College and other media and academic partners, also found that before last fall, nearly 60 per cent of Nova Scotia schools — 220 out of 370 — had never tested their taps for lead at all.
Those schools relied on municipal water systems, which conduct their own periodic testing, but never inside school property.
Education Minister Zach Churchill confirmed this week that lead testing in all schools has now been completed, but the database promised last year still requires work.
“They’re just in the process of finalizing that database and it should be up in relatively short order,” he said, committing to go online by the end of September.
The minister also assured that “in every single school, there is access to potable water,” although the teachers’ union said some of its members have seen and heard otherwise.
“Some schools seem to have access to bottled water,” Wozney explained. “And in other places, there’s just blanket statements — there’s no water, you will not be allowed to refill at school, any water a student consumes must be brought from home in a refillable container and it can’t be shared with anyone else.”
Last year, the Department of Education provided bottled water to 324 for schools across the province as 284 schools had not been tested and 40 schools that had been tested came back with unsafe results.
Stacey Rudderham, an administrator with Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, said many parents may be focused on pandemic-related concerns right now, but the delay in publishing the test results database hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“It’s not just a couple of weeks to most of the parents, it’s years,” she said.
“It’s something that should have been dealt with a lot sooner and it’s something that should have been dealt with by now.”
Rudderham said she sees no reason for the database to have been left to the last minute, “creating added stress and concern for parents and school staff.”