April 28, 2016 | Braden Dupuis | The Pique
In 2012, students at a Kitimat school were attempting to hatch salmon eggs in a classroom aquarium.
When the eggs didn’t hatch, a teacher called the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which came to test the school’s water.
The results found eight times the drinking water guidelines for copper, and further testing found elevated levels of lead.
“They went and did broader testing in their community, and went, ‘Oh gosh, this is a widespread issue in all our schools and in the broader community,'” said Jennifer Rice, NDP MLA for North Coast.
“Six scientists published a paper for the Centre for Disease Control, and said, ‘This is a public health priority, we should be doing this right away, and other schools should be tested.'”
The paper — titled “Investigating elevated copper and lead levels in school drinking water” — was published in 2014, and concludes that its findings support the need for routine monitoring of drinking water in schools.
“If you call up school districts around the province, they’re going to tell you this is the first they’ve heard of it,” Rice said.
“You’re going to hear of other schools that say, ‘Oh yeah, we used to do a flushing program, because we do have lead, but that didn’t stay intact when so-and-so maintenance guy left.
“How people deal with this and their level of education across the province is currently all over the map.”
In February, elevated levels of lead were found in the drinking water of four schools in Prince Rupert — where Rice lives — prompting her to introduce the “Safe Water for Schools Act.”
The bill would ensure schools test their water regularly for lead, and report the results to the public.
“If you’re obligated to provide a test result every year, you’re going to actually do the work, right? Because someone will have to be after you to make you accountable,” Rice said.
“And that’s what I’m asking for, is just basically some accountability.”
CORROSIVE WATER WIDESPREAD ON WEST COAST
On March 9, the Village of Pemberton announced it had found elevated levels of lead in the drinking water of some peoples’ homes, caused by corrosive water reacting with certain pipefittings.
In the weeks that followed, the Village scrambled to address the concerns of residents and find a long-term solution to the problem.
“Pemberton has been taking a lot of heat over this, but I get the sense they are not entirely unique,” said Kevin Wong, executive director of the Canadian Water Quality Association.
“Any community that is looking at naturally low pH, alkalinity and Total Dissolved Solids in their source water should be concerned. While that water would be some of the highest quality in the world, it would also make it a prime candidate to have some corrosion issues.”
And corrosive water systems are pervasive on the West Coast, where rainwater is abundant.
Even the B.C. legislature isn’t immune — water tests at the 119-year-old building in early March found lead levels more than five times the provincial and federal standards.
“Corrosion control is the best insurance any municipality could have in this case and is not just recommended, it is a must,” Wong said.
“The big municipalities have figured that out… because the cost of replacing the infrastructure is astronomical and takes time to replace the critical pieces.”
But corrosion control is a tough hill to climb for smaller communities like Pemberton, with limited resources and a static tax base.
“Pemberton is being sort of tarred and feathered, rightly or wrongly, and they’re being criticized for not dealing with low-pH water, but I don’t know that anybody is,” said Len Clarkson, drinking water officer for Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH).
“There’s not many communities in B.C. that treat for pH adjustment.”
LACK OF COMMUNICATION OR A GAP IN REGULATIONS?
In 2009, Health Canada released a document focused on corrosion control for water systems.
“Almost immediately cities like London and Windsor, Ont., started testing at the tap, to see whether their corrosion observations were having an effect at the end of pipe,” Wong said.
“They discovered lead there and reacted and responded immediately.”
The better half of a decade later, Ontario is the only province in Canada that requires water suppliers to test at the taps of peoples’ homes as well as at the source and in the distribution systems.
While water systems on B.C.’s West Coast are likely to meet all federal and provincial guidelines for drinking water, once the water reaches a homeowner’s property, it becomes a different situation altogether.
Corrosive water will leach undesirable metals from pipefittings — and if the water has been sitting for some time, there’s a chance people are ingesting those heavy metals.
VCH recommends that all schools, daycares and homes flush their taps before consuming the water if it’s been sitting for some time.
But for some reason, that messaging has fallen off the radar.
“I’m a bit surprised that the messaging that we thought was in place — that people should flush their taps — has essentially been stomped on by the conservation movement,” Clarkson said.
In a time of climate anxiety, with warmer summers, wildfires and looming water shortages, many people see it as counterproductive to let their water run for minutes on end.
Clarkson said he’s been recommending to the Ministry of Health that some provincial-level communication of the message would be helpful.
“It’s a very difficult message for individual communities to get out, because people move, and people have guests coming, and how do you maintain that message? How often do you need to give it out?” he said.
“It’s a complicated message, and I don’t know that it’s fair to put that onto municipalities. I would say it should probably be dealt with at a higher level, more broadly.”
With the issue getting more attention in recent weeks, the messaging will likely not be buried for long, said MLA and former Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy.
“I think it’s probably fair to say that the health authorities around the province are more alive to this issue as a result of Prince Rupert and Pemberton than they have been in the past,” Sturdy said.
“I have confidence that the messaging will get out there, too, through the health authorities to the school districts and through communities to keep people alive to this potential.”
The Province of B.C. is unlikely to mandate testing at the taps, according to the Ministry of Health.
“Building owners are responsible for the pipes and plumbing systems within their facilities, while water suppliers are responsible for providing clean, potable water to the building entrances,” a ministry spokesperson said in an email.
If a community is known to have corrosive water, health authorities can place a condition on their operating permit that requires them to inform the users of the risks of lead, and what they can do to mitigate leaching within their home.
Asked why such a condition wasn’t applied in the case of Pemberton, VCH said imposing conditions is a last resort, and drinking water officers work collaboratively with each supplier to find solutions, as every situation is different.
In response to Rice’s bill, the government said that the public health advice it has received indicates that no regulation is needed, “as safe water can be provided through strong policy and practices,” the ministry said.
“This is something that we will continue to monitor, and should further public health measures be warranted, we would certainly be open to reconsidering.”
FLUSH YOUR TAPS, VCH SAYS
With the added focus on the issue in recent weeks, local authorities are adjusting.
The Village of Pemberton has asked for greater communication with its health and school partners.
In addition to flushing the taps at Pemberton schools every morning, the Sea to Sky School District has now instituted the practice district-wide.
It is also currently conducting water testing at every school in the district — results should be made public in the coming weeks.
Though corrosion issues are widespread on the West Coast, corrosion control measures are not.
For now, VCH is recommending that homeowners, schools and daycares flush their taps until the water runs cold before consuming water.