High lev­els in wa­ter at more than half the school dis­tricts prompt ac­tion

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More than half of the 60 school dis­tricts in Bri­tish Columbia had un­safe lev­els of lead in drink­ing wa­ter sources in 2016 and early 2017, ac­cord­ing to new wa­ter test­ing or­dered by the pro­vin­cial govern­ment.

An anal­y­sis of the test re­sults shows that 26.5 per cent of the 15,000 tests on about 10,000 drink­ing sources re­vealed lead lev­els that ex­ceeded the man­dated limit for drink­ing wa­ter, some of them by wide mar­gins.

Ac­cord­ing to the data — and con­firmed in in­ter­views with dis­trict of­fi­cials — the 34 school dis­tricts have re­sponded with mea­sures such as in­stalling fil­ters and, in some cases, by re­plac­ing pipes and fix­tures.

But some schools con­tinue to use flush­ing, run­ning the wa­ter through pipes and fix­tures for a pe­riod of time, as a mit­i­ga­tion mea­sure. That passes muster for now with the prov­ince, but is viewed by some ex­perts as an in­ad­e­quate long-term so­lu­tion.

“Flush­ing is a short-term, in­cre­men­tal half-ass so­lu­tion. It’s bet­ter than noth­ing, but it’s not a long-term so­lu­tion,” says Dr. Bruce Lan­phear, a Si­mon Fraser Univer­sity health sciences pro­fes­sor and ex­pert in the ef­fects of tox­ins such as lead on chil­dren.

Lead in drink­ing wa­ter is a con­cern be­cause, over time, el­e­vated lev­els can cause dam­age to de­vel­op­ing brains, say med­i­cal ex­perts.

The test­ing for lead in drink­ing wa­ter was or­dered last year af­ter a Van­cou­ver Sun sur­vey re­vealed that more than a quar­ter of B.C.’s school dis­tricts found lead in drink­ing wa­ter that ex­ceeded the al­low­able limit in Cana­dian drink­ing wa­ter guide­lines of 10 parts per bil­lion.

Lead can leach into wa­ter in schools from old pipes, lead sol­der and cer­tain types of fit­tings and fix­tures.

The plumb­ing code was re­vised to limit the use of lead in potable wa­ter lines af­ter 1990, so all 1,578 schools built in the prov­ince be­fore then are po­ten­tially at risk for el­e­vated lead lev­els.

The 2016 and early 2017 test re­sults are in a data­base ob­tained through a free­dom of in­for­ma­tion re­quest by an in­ter­est group and an­a­lyzed by Post­media News.

They are the lat­est com­pre­hen­sive test re­sults avail­able, ac­cord­ing to the B.C. Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry, but do not cap­ture wa­ter safety at all drink­ing sources in ev­ery B.C. school be­cause the prov­ince gave the dis­tricts three years to com­plete the tests.

More re­sults — some of them from fol­lowup tests af­ter fixes to drink­ing sources — will roll out this year.

Some of the re­cent test re­sults sig­nif­i­cantly ex­ceed the Cana­dian guide­lines for lead.

At a drink­ing foun­tain in a girls’ change room at Wal­ter Lee ele­men­tary school in Rich­mond, a test in March 2017 showed the lead in the wa­ter ex­ceeded the Cana­dian and B.C. safety guide­lines by 307 times.

Ac­cord­ing to the in­for­ma­tion sup­plied to the prov­ince, the Rich­mond dis­trict de­com­mis­sioned the foun­tain tem­po­rar­ily to al­low an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of pip­ing sources and fix­tures to de­ter­mine the prob­lem and de­velop cor­rec­tive mea­sures.

At Henry Bose Ele­men­tary School in Sur­rey, the wa­ter tested at a drink­ing foun­tain in Au­gust of 2016 was 229 times above the drink­ing wa­ter guide­lines for lead.

In one of the worst re­sults, in Oc­to­ber 2016 at Berk­shire Park ele­men­tary school in Sur­rey, a sink in a girls’ wash­room ad­ja­cent to the gym tested at more than 1,700 times the al­low­able limit.

The Sur­rey dis­trict — which con­ducted the most ex­ten­sive tests at drink­ing sources at all of its schools and found higher than ac­cept­able lead lev­els in nearly 30 per cent of tests — has said it has taken ac­tion at its schools to en­sure drink­ing wa­ter is safe.

B.C. Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Rob Flem­ing said the over­all re­sults were a con­cern, which is why test­ing and mit­i­ga­tion re­quire­ments will con­tinue un­der the new NDP govern­ment.

Flem­ing said schools would not be forced to ex­pe­dite test­ing un­der a pol­icy set last year that re­quires schools only to test one-third of schools each year, but he ex­pects that some schools will ac­cel­er­ate their test­ing.

Flem­ing said about $6.5 mil­lion had been pro­vided to school dis­tricts since last year to help re­duce lead lev­els in wa­ter.

“We want to build a re­la­tion­ship with (school) dis­tricts where test­ing and poor re­sults are noth­ing to be afraid of re­ceiv­ing be­cause when it comes to ed­u­ca­tion and the new govern­ment, our mes­sage is that help is on the way,” Flem­ing said in an in­ter­view.


In the Sur­rey school dis­trict, where 8,711 tests were con­ducted on drink­ing sources in­clud­ing foun­tains and sinks, 29.5 per cent ex­ceeded safe lim­its for lead in wa­ter, the re­sults sup­plied to the prov­ince show.

The Sur­rey dis­trict would not make of­fi­cials re­spon­si­ble for its test­ing and mit­i­ga­tion projects avail­able for an in­ter­view, say­ing they were too busy with be­gin­ning-of-school-year du­ties.

But Doug Stra­chan, the dis­trict’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager, said that all avail­able drink­ing wa­ter sources have been tested and are safe to drink from, in­clud­ing those that re­quire reg­u­lar flush­ing.

For ex­am­ple, more re­cent test­ing data at two drink­ing sources each at Henry Bose (Fe­bru­ary 2017) and Ray Shep­herd (April 2017) ele­men­tary schools showed lead lev­els well be­low the limit.

Stra­chan said the dis­trict has in­stalled 271 new drink­ing foun­tains, 2,462 new sink faucets, 236 new bub­blers and 239 fil­ters in an ef­fort to re­duce lead in drink­ing wa­ter.

There are at least two fil­tered drink­ing foun­tains and two sinks at schools where fil­ter­ing is re­quired, he said.

As a medium-term so­lu­tion, the dis­trict is plan­ning to in­stall an au­to­mated flush­ing sys­tem for wa­ter lines at 63 schools built be­fore 1990.

Stra­chan said a per­ma­nent so­lu­tion is to re­place pipes. “But it will take years to do it be­cause of the mag­ni­tude of the project,” he said.


At the Greater Vic­to­ria school dis­trict, more than half of tests on drink­ing sources ex­ceeded safe lim­its for lead, 313 of the 612 tests.

The dis­trict re­sponded by in­stalling in-line fil­ters, about 500 so far, and mak­ing plumb­ing changes that al­low fil­ters to be eas­ily changed, at a cost of about $200,000.

The dis­trict de­cided flush­ing was not a vi­able long-term op­tion.

A re­port pre­pared by a con­sult­ing firm — Goode En­vi­ron­men­tal Ser­vices — noted that wa­ter showed a sig­nif­i­cant jump in lead lev­els af­ter wa­ter was left stand­ing in the pipes for two hours. “These re­sults in­di­cate that flush­ing alone is not al­ways an ef­fec­tive pro­ce­dure to keep the amount of lead in the sys­tem be­low the max­i­mum ac­cept­able limit re­quired,” said the con­sul­tant.

Said Mark Walsh, the Greater Vic­to­ria dis­trict’s sec­re­tary-trea­surer: “We were wor­ried that some­times, if peo­ple get busy, not ev­ery­thing would get flushed ap­pro­pri­ately.”

In­stalling fil­ters was a cheaper mit­i­ga­tion mea­sure than re­plac­ing pipes and fix­tures, said Walsh.


At the Abbotsford school dis­trict, the dis­trict de­cided to re­place fix­tures and pip­ing in a per­ma­nent mea­sure af­ter test­ing showed el­e­vated lead lev­els in 36 schools, a de­ci­sion lauded by the Fraser Health Au­thor­ity.

Echo­ing the con­cern of Greater Vic­to­ria, Abbotsford sec­re­tary­trea­surer Ray Ve­lestuk said the dis­trict didn’t be­lieve that flush­ing wa­ter lines was an ac­cept­able long-term so­lu­tion, and would eat up staff time.

The work on up­grad­ing pipes and fix­tures — with help from $840,000 in fund­ing from the prov­ince — was car­ried out through a four- to five­month pe­riod where walls had to be opened, which in­cluded some re­me­di­a­tion work for as­bestos that was done on week­ends, noted Ve­lestuk.

“We looked for a per­ma­nent so­lu­tion at a rea­son­able cost,” he said. “We reme­died it in pretty short or­der.”


At the Koote­nay Lake school dis­trict in the In­te­rior, 70 of 157 tests of drink­ing sources such as foun­tains and sinks ex­ceeded the lead lim­its for wa­ter.

The dis­trict is us­ing flush­ing to re­duce lead lev­els, which su­per­in­ten­dent Chris­tine Perkins said is con­sid­ered an “ac­cept­able pro­ce­dure” by the In­te­rior Health Au­thor­ity.

Perkins says the dis­trict ex­pects to have re­sults of another round of wa­ter test­ing within two weeks, which will be made public, and which will help the board de­cide what to do next.

Ac­cord­ing to the pro­vin­cial data­base of test re­sults, dis­tricts such as Burn­aby, Maple RidgePitt Mead­ows and Vernon are also us­ing flush­ing to re­duce lead in drink­ing wa­ter.


In the spring of 2016, the Van­cou­ver school board tested more than 250 wa­ter sam­ples at its 87 old­est schools. The dis­trict would not pro­vide some­one for an in­ter­view, but on its web­site says foun­tains that tested high for lead at 12 schools have been turned off, and that prob­lem sinks at two ad­di­tional schools have signs warn­ing the wa­ter is not drink­able.

One of those de­com­mis­sioned foun­tains is at Gra­ham D. Bruce ele­men­tary, which had more than seven times the ac­cept­able level of lead when tested twice in May 2016.

Ear­lier this year, Van­cou­ver Coastal Health is­sued new rules re­quir­ing wa­ter to be run for five min­utes or un­til cold at all schools with foun­tains that had tested high for lead.

The VSB says on its web­site that when flush­ing is done, all retests showed ac­cept­able lev­els of lead. But it is also too time-con­sum­ing for staff to do flush­ing daily for ev­ery wa­ter source, so the dis­trict plans to close many drink­ing foun­tains at the 85 schools built be­fore 1990.

In June, the dis­trict’s di­rec­tor of fa­cil­i­ties told the board that this ac­tion would leave about three work­ing foun­tains in each ele­men­tary school and about six in each high school. The dis­trict promised to retest the re­main­ing foun­tains be­fore the start of this school year, but an of­fi­cial said the re­sults are not yet avail­able to the public.

If those tests still show high lev­els of lead, the board could in­stall a trick­ling de­vice to keep the wa­ter run­ning or could re­place the foun­tain or could re­place the pip­ing.

The dis­trict does not plan to re-test sinks in the older schools, but to put up signs warn­ing wa­ter should be flushed be­fore use.

Van­cou­ver tested a small num­ber of sam­ples com­pared to the large amount of test­ing done in dis­tricts such as Sur­rey and Rich­mond, but the VSB says on its web­site it tested foun­tains or sinks far­thest from the wa­ter sup­ply, where wa­ter was most likely to sit in the pipes longer.

The Lan­g­ley school dis­trict has also tested rel­a­tively few wa­ter sam­ples, col­lect­ing 23 sam­ples in to­tal from 10 of its 45 schools. Lan­g­ley has opted to take the full three years al­lowed by Vic­to­ria to do the test­ing.



Westin, a Grade 7 stu­dent at Chief Dan Ge­orge Mid­dle School in Abbotsford, fills a wa­ter bot­tle at a new foun­tain. The Abbotsford school dis­trict re­placed fix­tures and pip­ing as a per­ma­nent fix af­ter test­ing showed el­e­vated lead lev­els in 36 schools. Such re­place­ment is con­sid­ered the best mea­sure to re­duce lead lev­els.

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