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5th October 2020
Are you using that water?’: Lead testing pulls back curtain on extent of problem in Nova Scotia schools

By Steve McKinley Halifax Bureau
Fri., Oct. 2, 2020 timer 5 min. read
update Article was updated 1 day ago

For Stacey Rudderham’s eldest daughter, Ellen, September brought a lot of changes.

There was a new school — Georges P. Vanier in Fall River, N.S. There was a new way of going to school — thanks to the coronavirus. And she would soon have a new smile.

That last development was courtesy of a new set of invisible braces. The caveat was that they required some extra care. So, for the first three weeks of September, Ellen would duck into the girl’s washroom in Room 120 at her school after lunch and brush her teeth.

That was until her mother questioned her about it this week.

“Are you using that water to brush your teeth?” asked Stacey Rudderham.

“Am I not supposed to?” asked her daughter.

“No, you shouldn’t be using it.”

That, said Rudderham, was the first her daughter had heard that levels of lead in the water she was using to brush her teeth had tested at more than twice Health Canada’s maximum allowable concentration.

This week, the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development released a long-awaited database of the results of lead testing in schools.

The database reveals the scope of a problem that is being seen across this country and appears prevalent in Nova Scotia.

The test results show that 86 per cent of the province’s public schools had at least one water test that failed to meet the standards for lead levels set by Health Canada.

A 2019 Toronto Star investigation — part of a collaboration with other media, including Global and journalism schools and co-ordinated by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism — revealed that nearly two-thirds of Nova Scotia schools had never had their water supplies tested for lead.

Following that investigation, the Nova Scotia government made a commitment to testing the water in all its schools and posting those results ahead of the school year. In early September, Education Minister Zach Churchill pushed that deadline to late September. The test results were posted on the last day of the month.

While experts say there is no safe level of lead exposure, Health Canada in 2019 lowered the maximum allowable concentration (MAC) of lead to 0.005 mg/L — half of the earlier standard.

The recently released database showed that fully one-third of the water tests performed in Nova Scotia schools failed that standard.

Of the 14,738 tests conducted, lead levels above the MAC were found in 4,941, equivalent to 33.5 per cent.

The province spins it another way.

“The results show that 70% of our schools’ drinking taps passed Health Canada’s new guidelines for lead and copper,” said a statement from the Department of Education and Early Childhood.

“Any drinking water tap that exceeded limits has been replaced or taken out of service, and alternate sources of clean drinking water have been provided. Remediation is underway, our regions and CSAP will (update) their plans quarterly.”

Though the Nova Scotia government claimed in that statement to be a leader in supplying clean water to its schools, data shows its testing results falls far short of, for example, Ontario.

“I think it’s really important not to be an alarmist over this issue,” Churchill, the education minister, told reporters this week.

“Previously, before the exceedance levels were lowered by Health Canada, we were under their health and safety guidelines, and so Nova Scotians should take comfort in that.”

However, one of the takeaways from the 2019 Star investigation was that the majority of schools in the province — 60 per cent of them — weren’t being tested for lead. Until 2019, only schools on well water underwent those tests. So there is no real way to know the lead levels in those schools before this year’s testing.

Lead exposure has been linked to reduced cognition, increased blood pressure and renal problems in adults. In children — who are particularly susceptible — it’s been linked with impaired neuro- and cognitive development and lower IQs.

At Georges P. Vanier Junior High School, 27 of 50 water tests exceeded the limits for lead exposure. In the girl’s washroom in Room 120, the water that Ellen Rudderham had been brushing her teeth with tested at 0.0170, 0.0110 and 0.073 mg/L of lead in the three taps in the room — more than twice the allowable concentration of 0.005 mg/L in two of those taps.

In her school, there were signs warning not to drink the water on water fountains and in some of the washrooms, but not the one Ellen was using.

The saving grace, said Rudderham, is that her daughter had only been using the lead-contaminated water for a few weeks, since she began Grade 8 at Georges P. Vanier. But she worries about other parents, whose children have been at the school longer, who may have been exposed to the lead-contaminated water for a few years.

And that’s a problem for Paul Wozney, the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. Wozney said the data for schools that had previously had their water tested for lead, should have been included in Wednesday’s data dump of information.