LEAD IN DRINKING WATER
On its website, the Langley district, which uses water from wells, says it tested all its schools for lead in 2015 and the tests came back clear. When the Education Ministry ordered this round of tests in 2016, Langley worked with Fraser Health to “develop a new comprehensive testing procedure.”
So far, all 23 Langley results revealed low lead levels. Tests at the remaining 22 Langley schools that were built before 1990 will be done over the next two years.
The district did not answer a question about how it can be sure the water is safe at those yet-to-be-tested schools, saying only that it is following ministry policies.
The website indicates that if any future tests show high lead volumes, the district’s immediate solutions include flushing the fountains or deactivating them.
FLUSHING A SHORT-TERM OPTION
Lanphear, the SFU professor, said it is good that many districts are taking such steps as installing filters and replacing pipes and fixtures, rather than flushing.
He said flushing water through pipes is a temporary solution, noting it may only be good for an hour or two, as often time lead concentrations can build up again quite quickly.
Fleming, the education minister, agreed that flushing is not a longterm solution to reduce lead in drinking water in schools.
But he said in an interview that the provincial health office has found no evidence of any children being harmed by the elevated lead levels.
Marc Zubel, drinking water program manager at the Fraser Health Authority, said in some cases flushing may not be effective, but one can’t draw a conclusion that it’s not going to be good enough in every case.
But he also said he doesn’t believe all the facts are in on how schools are trying to reduce lead levels in water and whether they are effective. “It would be good to see what all those results are and a sort of a summary of what the schools have been doing about it,” said Zubel.
The World Health Organization has declared there is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also say that there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood.
Experts and regulators, including in Canada and the U.S., have said that young children are particularly vulnerable to lead because the physical and behavioural effects of lead occur at lower exposure levels in children than in adults.
In children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing and impaired formation and function of blood cells, according the U.S. Environmental and Protection Agency.
Health Canada says the strongest association observed to date is increased lead levels in blood in children and reductions in intelligence quotient, or IQ, scores.
Lanphear said the Canadian standard for lead in drinking water of 10 parts per billion was never intended as a health standard, and that like other toxic standards, was a balance between scientific evidence and what was feasible to achieve.
He said over time — whether that’s two years or five years — steps should be taken to reduce the lead in water to below one part per billion, a standard recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
An analysis by Postmedia of the water testing data supplied to the province showed that if the safe limit was set at even five parts per billion, half the current standard, the number of B.C. tests that failed would increase to 42 per cent from 26.5 per cent.
District parent advisory councils do not seem overly concerned about testing results and the approach being taken by school districts.
Karen Tan, president of the Surrey District Parents Advisory Council, said for a short period of time last year, students were told not to drink from fountains, including at her children’s school, Williams Watson elementary.
The Surrey parent advisory council was made aware of lead testing being done last year, and told if water is not safe, fountains and sinks would be shut off until fixed, she said.
“Of course, there maybe inconveniences to students. We, parents trust the district to ensure that our schools are safe and water fountains are safe to drink from,” said Tan.
Audrey Smith, the president of the Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, noted the Greater Victoria school district is addressing the problem.
Many parents send water bottles to school with their children, said Smith. “Old buildings have old pipes. In Victoria, that means lead pipes unless the building has had an extensive renovation. That isn’t in the budget, so filters are the answer for now,” said Smith.
She added the confederation was not aware of any parents unhappy with the response from its district, since the lead levels were measured.