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Posts Tagged ‘Lead in Drinking Water’

“DO NOT USE” signs plastered all over school drinking fountains have a way of getting the chilling message across. For the past thirty years, those signs have appeared, periodically, on fountains in thousands of Canadian K-12 schools. Most of us walk by, unaware – until recently — of a simmering public health crisis.

What was a largely dormant issue has come back with a vengeance.  The November 4, 2019 release of the findings of the massive year-long Canadian investigation, spearheaded by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, has raised new concerns over exposure to lead in home tap water and school/daycare drinking water supplies.

The “Tainted Water” series of news reports were alarming because many in education had assumed it was behind us. The benchmarks changed in March of 2019 when federal health authorities reduced the acceptable levels of lead from 10 parts per billion (ppb) to 5 ppb. Out of 12,000 tests conducted since 2004, in 11 different Canadian cities, one-third – 33 per cent—exceed the new health. safety standard. The latest investigation, based upon some 260 water tests conducted in 32 cities and towns and validated in accredited labs showed that 39 per cent of samples, or two out of five, exceeded the 5 ppb guideline for healthy water.

The current health alarm is serious, but needs to be considered in proper North American context.  Three to four million American children were found to have toxic levels of lead in their blood back in the 1980s. Levels of contamination were far higher in those days. The U.S. EPA reported that thirty-three of the 47 states testing drinking water had levels exceeding the then acceptable standard of 20 ppb.  Back then, most people, including young children, were exposed to multiple environmental sources, including paint on old housing walls, drinking water, ambient air, dust, soil, and food, particularly canned goods.

The 1988 U.S. Lead Contamination Control Act imposed strict new regulations on American schools requiring them to clean up their act by testing drinking water, abandoning lead-lined water coolers, and remedying any contamination found in taps and water intake pipes. It faced stiff legal challenges and a great deal of non-compliance and was eventually struck down in 1996 by a federal appeals court.

The first real school drinking water scare did produce a ripple effect and reactive responses which reverberated in school districts, from province-to-province, across Canada. What survived was a 1991 EPA established standard that required periodic tests for lead and copper levels in public water systems virtually excluding schools and day cares drawing water from their own wells. While the limit was reduced to 15 ppb, it applied to municipal water feeds rather than internal sources of contamination. In the case of schools, most of the lead still originates in lead pipes, water-cooler linings, and in led metal fountains and taps.

Medical science has advanced significantly over the past three decades, but implementation of health regulations lags, especially when it comes to testing for lead contaminants in schools and daycares. Coast-to-coast, the Canadian investigators identified a patchwork of lead regulations, weak oversight, laxity in conducting tests, and the relative absence of regular testing of homes, schools or daycares drawing water from wells.

When Health Canada cut the acceptable level of lead levels in half, it sent provincial and school district authorities scrambling, particularly outside the major metropolitan centres,  The new regulation came with warnings that, even at concentrations as low as 5 ppb, high levels of exposure can damage the prefrontal cortex, cause prenatal growth abnormalities, and contribute to anti-social behaviour and child behavioural problems. It has also been identified as a risk factor for hypertension, chronic kidney disease and tremors in adults.

Thousands of Canadian children in schools and daycares are at risk of ingesting lead in drinking water and most were totally unaware of that until the release of the latest journalistic expose. Provincial authorities, with the possible exception of Ontario and British Columbia, are playing catch-up, compared to a number of American states more proactive in testing and public disclosure.

The EPA promotes its “3Ts” approach – Training, Testing and Taking Action, complete with home and school water quality testing kits.  Since August 2016, New York State has required all school districts and boards to “test all potable water outlets for lead contamination, to remediate contamination where found, and to notify parents of children and the public of the results.”

The 2016 public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, intimately connected with the toxicity of water did not seem to register up here in Canada. Periodic warnings were issued to no avail by provincial public servants, according to newly-released government documents obtained through formal freedom-of-information requests.

Cleaning-up school drinking water standards is back as a top education priority. Whether it will last in a system best by competing immediate demands for reduced class sizes, more resource supports, and improved working conditions remains to be seen. Deferred maintenance has a way of coming back to bite school systems.

*An earlier version of this commentary was published in The Chronicle Herald, November 16, 2019 

Why is lead still in school and daycare drinking water, thirty years after the initial revelations?  Was the 2019 lead in the water scare the result of Health Canada’s decision to dramatically reduce the acceptable standards? How effectively did school and day care authorities respond?  Without a nation-wide investigative report, how much would we have known about the extent of the problem? 

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