Unacceptable levels of lead found in water at four schools

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February 21, 2016

Dear Editor,

The Ministry of Health has shown an absence of leadership by choosing not to test drinking water in a timely manner and furthermore to then not inform the general public in Prince Rupert that there are in fact lead issues in drinking water not just in schools but throughout our community.

While parents are being reassured that there is not an acute health concern with lead in school drinking water what the public is not being told is that the accumulation of even low levels of lead over time has been associated with neurological issues in children, developmental problems with growing fetuses, and heart, kidney and stomach issues in adults.

It is no secret that Prince Rupert has an aging infrastructure challenge with many buildings and homes still containing lead water pipes, but the Ministry of Health has failed to test the drinking water of school children in the Northwest despite doing so in other parts of the province in the 1980s and 1990s. This neglect has resulted in children consuming contaminated drinking water. At Pineridge elementary school, lead was found to be 14 x above the maximum allowable levels.

It should be noted that there is no routine testing of drinking water in BC Schools. Only Ontario has legislation in place to regularly test and report for lead in schools.

And yet, last week the Minister of Health told the BC legislature that his staff discovered highly elevated lead levels in Prince Rupert school drinking water through “routine testing”.

The galling fact is that the Minister’s staff discovered this serious issue in Rupert as the result of a 2012 classroom science experiment gone wrong in Kitimat — not routine testing. When salmon eggs in a classroom aquarium would not hatch, a teacher took it upon herself to get the water tested. When the results showed high levels of copper and lead, the test results were provided to public health, which in turn prompted an investigation of other Kitimat schools and it was found that they too had lead issues.

The Health Minister’s staff wrote an academic paper about the Kitimat water issue in 2014 for the Province’s Centre for Disease Control. The Kitimat report said:

“Given the consequences of lead exposure during childhood and the effects that can occur even at low levels, reducing lead exposures should be a public health priority”.

And the Minister didn’t do a thing until one of his staff, a dedicated public servant took the initiative and tested the water in Prince Rupert schools this year.

The 2014 report identified that if the plumbing in children’s homes is similar to that of the school’s older construction – then the cumulative lead levels from both sources would “more than double typical total lead intakes”.

The report also states, “Exposure in childhood has been associated with lower intelligence scores as well as behavioural disorders such as attention deficit disorder and antisocial behaviour”.

The report explains how low levels of lead can effect fetal development during pregnancy and cause neurological, cardiovascular and renal effects in adults.

Via the backpacks of children along with apple juice and artwork, parents of four schools were informed by letter from the Superintendent of schools that lead in school drinking water exceeded Health Canada recommendations.

Northern Health did allow its logo on the letter but no other Ministry of Health press release, website link, Facebook or twitter page post was provided. Only after I informed the media did they speak publicly about the issue.

The Ministry of Health has shown no leadership in properly informing and educating the rest of the public that lead levels are high in Prince Rupert, that consuming these elevated levels from multiple sources has serious risks nor have they fully communicated what the public can do about it.

It is alarming that;

  • The Ministry of Health’s only communication on the matter was by way of a letter from the School District Superintendent to some parents.
  • That no other communication was provided to other vulnerable people such as pregnant mothers whose developing babies are also at risk from low levels of lead.
  • The Minister of Health lies about routine testing in schools when in fact there is no routine testing.
  • The Ministry of Health has known for years that Northwest communities with their low pH, high acidic water should be tested for lead and not just in schools.
  • Only after a public servant took the initiative herself was water tested in Prince Rupert schools.

As specified by the Chief Medical Officer there is no “acute” health issue from drinking water from the schools alone. However it is unknown what the impacts to Prince Rupert children and adults has been from drinking this water over time and in combination of obtaining lead from other sources such as from the older pipes from homes in Prince Rupert.

To test your own water, home test kits are available at the Public Health Unit at 300 Third ave. West for $29. If you are concerned about you or your child’s health, talk to your doctor or primary care provider.

You can read the Kitimat report and learn more on my website at www.jenniferrice.ca

Jennifer Rice

MLA North Coast

NDP Opposition Spokesperson – Northern and Rural Health