LET’S GET THE LEAD OUT
High levels in water at more than half the school districts prompt action
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.