When the 2014 Flint water crisis happened, Canadians were outraged. They wondered how such a disaster could have occurred in a first world country that had the resources to provide safe drinking water to its citizens. Little did Canadians know, they were having similar issues right at home. As a recent Toronto Star investigation reveals, for the past two years, over 600 Ontario schools have failed to meet provincial standards regarding lead levels in water.
Lead is especially harmful to children. Even at low exposures, it can have debilitating physical and behavioural effects. In fact, it has been linked to behaviour and learning problems, slowed growth, lower IQ and hyperactivity, impaired hearing, and anemia. More troubling is that a number of prominent health and environment agencies including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agree that there is no known safe level of lead in children’s blood; any amount is dangerous. Moreover, the same concentrations of lead can have adverse effects on children without affecting adults, making it harder to test for it.
The province of Ontario has been particularly tough on ensuring drinking water is safe for children. It’s the only Canadian province that requires schools and child-care centres to conduct annual tests for lead in their water systems. In fact, new legislature pertaining to this came into effect on July 1, 2017, called the Ontario Regulation 234/07. This law requires schools and child-care centres to frequently flush their plumbing to reduce the risk of lead contamination and to thoroughly and consistently check their drinking water for lead. Furthermore, any facility with a primary division must collect samples (both a standing sample and a flushing sample) from all drinking water fixtures at least once by January 2020 to be taken for testing.
A standing sample is one taken from water that has been sitting overnight, or for at least six hours. That’s the amount of time it takes for lead in metal piping to leach into water. Flushed water, on the other hand, has been run through taps for at least five minutes to drain out standing water. You can tell the difference by temperature: flushed water is colder because it comes from pipes outside the facility. Standing and flushed water tests provide different checks for the integrity of water pipes. Lead levels in flushed water tests should be lower than standing water because the water hasn’t been “still” long enough to accumulate lead. If standing samples have high levels of lead, it’s an indicator that pipes within the facility are eroding and need to be replaced. If flushed water samples have high levels of lead, it’s the delivery pipes outside of the facility that are damaged.
Lead contamination is used as an indicator for water purity levels because it’s toxic and it’s only found in man-made water systems, rarely is it found in natural water sources. Any contamination that occurs usually happens between the source and the facility. Usually, it’s the water delivery system that poses a problem because of how common lead is in water infrastructure. As a a soft metal, lead is relatively easy to shape compared to other commercial metals like steel. Older facilities especially utilize lead piping because it was only recently that the chronic effects of lead exposure came into question. While newer facilities are moving away from lead, the risks associated remain in older ones, like Ontario schools.
At present, Ontario’s drinking water quality standard for lead is 10 micrograms per litre (μg/L), also referred to as parts per billion (ppb). However, scientists believe this level is still too high. Researchers have found that lead levels of 10 ppb can have adverse health effects on children and adults. With plans to lower the standard even further to 5 ppb, Ontario is becoming more proactive in ensuring that children are not harmed. Yet, with a lowered lead level at 5 ppb, an additional number of schools from the Star’s investigation–about 800 or more–would have failed to meet standards.
While the Toronto Star’s investigation into lead contamination in Ontario schools is eye-opening in raising awareness about lead-levels, it also yields data that’s hard to generalize. Around 110 of the 800 schools found lead levels higher than 5 ppb–the previously noted golden threshold of lead contamination–in 100% of their samples. But these same schools only provided 2 samples for testing. In contrast, schools with lower percentages of lead contamination provided 150 water samples or more for testing. It’s possible that the ‘failed’ schools ended up taking samples from the only contaminated water sources in the facility. Running school-wide water tests would have provided a more accurate picture about the state of lead contamination in their schools. This is what the new Ontario Regulation 234/07 legislature aims to do.
What is worth noting is that one of the two schools with the lowest levels of lead is a prestigious IB school in Toronto where the fees are upwards of $30,000 per year. Contrast this to some schools with high lead levels, which are all public, and located in areas where the median incomes ranges from $30, 000 to $90, 000.
Ontario has one of the most stringent water testing programs in the country. Compared to provinces such as British Columbia, it enjoys relatively safe drinking water. However, the Star’s investigation indicates that lead-contamination is a real possibility. Schools with weak water infrastructure are at risk for poisoning the most vulnerable with unsafe water: children. Should doctors in high-risk areas start routinely testing school children for lead poisoning? It’s not an unreasonable claim. Family doctors are first points of contact for the sick – they’ll have first exposure to lead-poisoned children. If they know what to look for, they can treat the problem early. Physician testing can also act as a second layer of scrutiny on top of government-led checks. It may seem an unnecessary use of resources given Ontario’s generally high water quality, but when it comes to children, the stakes are too high to overlook.
By Hagr Saad and Aishah Cader
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.