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8th July 2018
No regular lead testing for drinking water in B.C. daycares

Fri., June 22, 2018

VANCOUVER—Almost two years after B.C. began requiring schools to test for lead in their drinking water, the province has yet to compel daycares to do the same, though babies and young children are considered most vulnerable to the effects of lead.

While the province is considering lead sampling for child-care centres, B.C. is lagging behind other North American jurisdictions including Ontario, Oregon and Washington state, with no strict requirements currently in place, only a general requirement to provide safe drinking water. As of 2016, schools built before 1990 are required to test their water every three years, with many schools already reporting exceeding safe levels of lead in drinking water.

A Star analysis of about 100 daycares catering to babies and children under five in Vancouver suggests the plumbing in numerous child-care centres could contain lead. Using publicly available data, the Star found that more than 55 per cent of those daycares were in buildings constructed before 1990, with some built more than 100 years ago.

The Star found seven of the roughly 100 daycares for which it searched records were in buildings constructed between 1901 and 1920. More than 55 were built before 1990.

Jessica Li, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, said officials are in discussions about lead sampling in daycares with the B.C. Environmental Health Policy Advisory Committee.

In the meantime, daycare operators “must ensure that safe drinking water is available to children” as required by provincial child-care regulations under the Community Care and Assisted Living Act. The results are then shared with the regional health authorities, she said.

Those regulations do not specifically require lead testing. But the province does recommend lead testing and provides guidelines to that effect. A fact sheet related to this section of the regulations, for instance, stipulates that lead can be found in tap water, and that caregivers should “take steps to reduce children’s exposure to lead from all sources.”

Asked how daycare operators demonstrate they provide safe drinking water, a Ministry of Health spokesperson directed the Star to the regional health authorities.

While the five bodies all require that daycares are in compliance with the Act, they vary on how they upkeep those regulations. No health authority has formal requirements that daycares must pass a test for lead in drinking water or follow lead management practices.

Officers at Island Health and Northern Health both help support child-care facilities to follow the regulations outlined in the Act.

In 2017, Interior Health partnered with Caro Environmental on an initiative to assist child-care facilities with testing drinking water and helped facilities that tested over the guidelines with mitigation strategies, such as replacing older pipes.

Vancouver Coastal Health requires daycare operators ensure water meets the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality, and the VCH officers “do remind daycare operators to flush their water lines first thing in the morning.” Their chief medical health officer also offers “resources for daycare operators to protect children from lead in drinking water.”

Tasleem Juma, senior consultant for public affairs at Fraser Health, said, “our licensing officers provide education and resources to daycare operators regarding drinking water safety,” but that they “have not had any test results from daycares pertaining to lead in their water system.”

Sharon Gregson, director of Early Years programs at Collingwood Neighbourhood House, said she has never been asked by the health authorities about testing for lead in water.

“It has never been brought up, and it hasn’t been an issue for us at all in many years of working here, and because we operate many centres, we are talking to licensing officers at Vancouver Coastal Health on a weekly basis and it’s never been raised as an issue,” she said.

Gregson said the Neighbourhood House, which operates 14 licensed child-care programs, has been visited by VCH licensing officials to check for everything from “trans fat in margarine, hazards in the environment, the depth of fall zones” as well as “the temperature of water being hot enough to kill germs, but not too hot to burn” — but never lead in the drinking water.

There is no safe level of lead exposure, according to bodies such as the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Even at low levels, it can affect children’s brain development, lower their IQs and increase the risk of behavioural issues, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“You get a little lead, it doesn’t cause dramatic damage, but what it does, it reduces by a few days the duration of pregnancy, or it reduces by a little bit children’s intellectual ability, or it increases a little bit (the risk of) dying from heart disease or having hypertension,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, an expert at Simon Fraser University, who studies the effects of toxins such as lead on people.

Children under six are particularly vulnerable because exposure to lead can damage or change the organization of cells while their brains are developing rapidly, he said.

“So, we do worry about children throughout that time period.”

Previous studies have shown that exposure to higher levels of lead during the first six years can affect the development of a child’s prefrontal cortex, “the part of the brain that makes us most distinctly human,” Lanphear said.

“It’s also the place where you would expect to see damage if you were concerned about ADHD or antisocial behaviours,” he added.

Unless they are in neighbourhoods where we know there are no problems, Lanphear said, “we should be screening daycare centres for elevated levels of lead in their water.”

Audrey Patterson’s two-year-old son Braxton attends daycare in a building constructed in 1975.

She said the government should require licensed child-care centres to test for lead in drinking water and make funding available to cover the costs or address any issues uncovered through testing.

“Some of them are run by churches, are churches going to have to come up with that money? It should be the government, but if it’s not a government building, who pays for it?”

If there was a major issue at her daycare, “I would be all over our committee of parents and board members to raise funds and get it changed immediately, we’d fix it,” she said.

But for busy parents in cities like Vancouver, where the demand for daycare outstrips the supply of open spots, she said issues around lead in drinking water necessarily get pushed lower on the priority list.

“People have their kids on lists before they’re even born,” she said. It felt like “winning the lottery” to get a spot for Braxton at her daycare, where the kids have outdoor space to play and the quality of care is “amazing.”

Rena Laberge, the co-chair of the B.C. Family Child Care Association, said she thinks all child-care providers would be in favour of lead sampling in their facilities.

“What may pose a problem is that some facilities are in providers’ own residences, and if there were any fixes that need to happen, what avenue would each provider have to get it fixed, and would there be any provincial or federal financial help available for providers to ease the financial burden of getting anything needed fixed,” she said.

Ainslie Cruickshank is a Vancouver-based reporter covering the environment. Follow her on Twitter: ainscruickshank

Cherise Seucharan is a Vancouver-based reporter covering youth. Follow her on Twitter: CSeucharan