Nearly every single public school in the Halifax Regional Centre for Education has too much lead in its drinking water, according to data released by the provincial government this week.
Of the region’s 141 schools, 87 per cent or 123 schools had unsafe levels of lead flowing from at least one tap, with levels as high as 1,880 times above Health Canada’s legal limit.
Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin, linked to lowered IQ, developmental disorders, and ADHD in young, developing brains. While experts agree there is no safe limit for consumption, the federal government lists five parts per billion (ppb) as the maximum allowable concentration.
One high school in Halifax — J.L. Ilsley — had a result of 9,400 ppb at “physics lab room 216 tap 2,” in addition to an exceedance of copper.
On Thursday, Education Minister Zach Churchill said there’s no need for parents to be alarmed, as safe drinking water is being provided in every school.
Churchill promised to publish lead test results for all of the province’s 370 schools last year, after a groundbreaking investigation by Global News, the Star Halifax, Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, the University of King’s College, and other media and academic partners.
That series, called Tainted Water, found that in the past 10 years, at least 24 schools in Nova Scotia have had lead levels exceeding Health Canada’s current limit, and the majority of schools had never tested the water, as they relied on municipal systems that conducted their own tests outside school property.
Churchill vowed to test all schools and release the results in a centralized, online database by the beginning of the 2020 school year. His department didn’t create a database, but published results for each regional centre for education in eight separate documents on Sept. 30.
Historical data for lead in schools was not released, nor was any summary of findings for students, parents, and staff.
On Thursday, Churchill told reporters he doesn’t “see a difference” between the lists published Wednesday, and a centralized database with machine-readable data that can be analyzed, scraped and searched.
As of this month, the majority of all schools in the province had unsafe levels of lead at one or more taps.
In the HRCE alone, seven schools — Lockview High School, John Martin Junior High School, Prince Andrew High School, Eastern Shore District High School, Oyster Pond Academy, J.L. Ilsley High School and Dartmouth High School — had between 40 and 93 lead exceedances, respectively.
Twenty-seven schools, including Hillside Park Elementary, Harbour View Elementary School, Crichton Park Elementary School, John Martin Junior High School, and Gaetz Brook Junior High School, had more tests that failed than passed.
At John Martin, nine tests conducted in science labs and at the boy’s washroom by the learning centre, had results between 200 and 780 times above Health Canada’s limit.
Gaetz Brook had one test at a fountain by the girl’s washroom that measured 4,600 ppb of lead — 920 times above the limit — and another at the photo room tap measuring 3.3 ppb or 660 times the limit.
The Education Department guarantees safe drinking water is being provided to every single school in the province, both due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and evidence of widespread lead contamination.
“I think it’s really important not to be an alarmist over this issue,” Churchill told Global News. “Nova Scotia is one of the leaders in the country in terms of addressing this issue.”
It’s possible, however, that students and staff at some schools have already consumed lead-laced water from taps that were never tested for lead before this year, and prior to the Tainted Water investigation, were not provided with a separate supply of bottled water.
Churchill has repeatedly declined to acknowledge that schools on municipal systems were never tested before this year. On Thursday, he claimed Nova Scotia schools have always been in compliance with federal guidelines, even though it’s impossible to confirm that without testing each tap.
“We have always been within those (federal) guidelines previously, and we’re in the process of ensuring that we’re going to be following the new guidelines as well,” he said, adding that Public Health has not indicated there’s a health and safety concern in Nova Scotia.
Churchill said some schools with lead issues will not have those problems fixed, but will continue to be provided with bottled water in perpetuity. Others will be remediated, “depending on the nature of the problem,” and that there’s no cost estimate tied to that fix.
“That can vary from the tap itself, to pipes, to the source water,” he explained. “So we’ll continue to provide bottled water until the remediation happens. We’re getting close to procuring touchless water fountains as well.”
Testing at all taps will be conducted quarterly, he added, and communities will continue to be informed of the results and solutions in progress.