Lead in school water spurs call for province-wide tests

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February 23, 2016 | Lindsay Kines | Times Colonist

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake deflected calls Monday for provincewide testing of drinking water in older schools, despite the discovery of elevated lead levels in tap water at schools in Prince Rupert and Kitimat.

Lake said medical health officers respond “when issues come to their attention,” but he was unable to say how they would know about an issue in schools without regular tests.

“I mean, this is something that’s come to light relatively recently,” he said. “We’ll have a conversation about that, and plan together how we can assure parents around the province that the water-quality issues are being addressed at the local level.”

He insisted, however, that there is no cause for alarm, because students consume so little water from school fountains that it does not increase their lead levels.

The issue surfaced in the northwest after salmon eggs died in a Kitimat school aquarium in 2012, triggering an investigation that discovered elevated lead levels in water at four schools.

The Health Ministry then waited nearly four years before testing water in nearby Prince Rupert schools, although the area had similar water conditions and schools of the same age as those in Kitimat.

Prince Rupert students and parents were alerted last week that testing found elevated lead levels in tap water at four schools built prior to 1989, when lead was commonly used in plumbing materials. The issue is believed to stem from water sitting overnight in contact with lead pipes or lead solder.

The notice to parents noted that “there is no ‘good’ amount of lead” and that long-term exposure could have an effect on growth and development in children.

The Prince Rupert school district is now flushing school pipes each morning and installing water fountains that filter out lead. The government, however, has offered no plan for older schools in other communities in the northwest or elsewhere in the province.

“We need to be looking at a whole host of schools in the northwest, some of the oldest buildings in the province,” NDP Leader John Horgan said. “If we have troubles in one, it’s quite likely we’re going to have troubles in all of them. The government shouldn’t be just turning a blind eye and waiting for fish to die in a science experiment. They should be taking proactive action to make sure that kids … are drinking safe water.”

Horgan said the province should follow Ontario and require regular monitoring of school drinking water. “If they have a proactive process where they’re testing water in schools, we should be doing the same thing in B.C.,” he said. “If there’s evidence, as there has been in one district, there’s probably evidence in others as well.”

The Health Ministry issued a statement late Monday, saying: “As a precaution, the provincial health officer has asked drinking water officials in each health authority about the status of testing for lead in drinking water in school districts.

“In addition, Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.’s health officer, is also working with the Ministry of Education to send a reminder to ensure schools with older plumbing systems are testing the water and following a flushing program or other mitigation strategies such as filtration.”

Island Health does not routinely test for lead in school drinking water, but will if it has reason to believe there is an issue, the agency said in an email. “We have also in the past sent around information to schools to implement a flushing program, and it should be an ongoing process.

“We do advise that any time there is standing water in pipes, such as over a weekend, that the water be allowed to run to flush the pipes,” the agency said, noting a guideline is to flush water lines until the temperature drops as fresh water enters a home prior to using water for drinking, cooking or preparing baby formula.

The Greater Victoria school district has had a pipe-flushing protocol for at least 15 years, secretary-treasurer Mark Walsh said Monday. “We have daytime custodians in each of our facilities and so one of their opening procedures is to run the taps in the school to make sure that any water that’s sat in the pipes over the evening has filtered out,” he said.

Walsh said the water has been tested at some schools, but there is no regular program.

Keven Elder, Saanich school district superintendent, said the district recently conducted water testing at its older schools. “We’re waiting for the results, but we’re optimistic,” he said. “We have no reason to believe there’s any concern. We test periodically and have never had a concern.”

Elder was unable to say whether there is protocol in place whereby custodians flush pipes in older schools each morning. “I’m not aware [of one], but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”

Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.’s health officer, said last week that, in the past, when lead was found in school drinking water, blood tests revealed that children’s lead levels were not elevated. “You’d have to drink a lot of that first-flush stuff in the morning to get the higher levels, and it doesn’t seem that kids consume enough of the drinking water to actually make a difference to their measurable blood levels.”

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