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29th September 2021
EDITORS NOTE: If you go back into our files on this website, you will see that VIWWC dealt with the school district on the "lead in drinking water" issue in April 2016, October, 2017, November, 2017 and February, 2018. I would really like to know why we never get credit for the work we began with NO citizen involvement at all, even though we called for help. MOST frustrating!
Please note: Any structures built before 1990 likely have some lead pipes within the structure. They should be testing their water regularly.


Nearly half are affected, tests show. Managers say finding fixes is confusing and frustrating. A Tyee investigation.

Francesca Fionda

Lead in the water of child-care facilities is a problem on Vancouver Island, one far bigger than in some other areas of the province. The government has known about it for years. Its own testing program proves it. But when it comes to dealing with the threat, people affected are running out of patience at the trickle of response from officials.

One method health authorities commonly advise — just turning on the taps and running water for a while before letting staff and kids use it — is called no solution at all by experts.

Which further troubles people working in affected daycares. Some told The Tyee they are worried, wrung out and want action.

Among 1,049 licensed child-care facilities in the Island Health region, nearly half have unsafe lead levels in their water according to testing done between January and March of 2020 by Vancouver Island Health Authority.

In 480 child-care facilities the water had lead levels above Health Canada’s recommended maximum of five parts per billion, or 5 ppb.

The testing was part of the Lead in Water Child Care Project that started in early 2020, when the ministry directed all licensed child-care facilities to probe their water for lead.

“I’m deeply concerned,” said Rebecca Beauchamp, a team lead and manager of the XaXe SŦELIṮḴEL Childcare Centre in Victoria. Her daycare is one that tested above the guideline. “Water is essential. And the tests show the fact that there is a lot of lead in our water.”

Beauchamp echoed what The Tyee heard from others at affected daycares when we reached out to them. Child-care staff across Vancouver Island expressed frustration with the lack of clarity, followup, funding or urgency to implement long-term solutions.

“I don’t know where to go from here,” said Tina Alyward, licensee and owner of Kid’s Place Childcare Center in Nanaimo. Recent testing found lead in the water at her child-care facility.

Alyward said her daycare was already using water coolers for all the drinking water but she wants a longer-term solution. Unresolved questions swirl in her mind. “How do we fix this and what are the costs of fixing it? What’s the best way to fix it? What kind of filter system is good?”

But answers too often prove beyond the reach of child-care administrators strapped for time and money.

Even low lead levels a threat: expert

“There needs to be much more urgency, particularly because young children absorb lead more readily than older children and adults,” said Bruce Lanphear, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University. He’s been researching the impact of lead and toxins in children for over 25 years.

In children, lead can affect the development of the brain and nervous system, causing learning problems and behavioural disorders. While the Canadian guideline for lead in water is set to five ppb, there is no safe amount of lead exposure and young children are especially vulnerable.

Lanphear said even very small amounts of lead will have major health implications for populations of young children.

“One of the things we worry most about with low levels of lead exposure is how it damages the brain, particularly the young brain,” the researcher told The Tyee and APTN News whose reporter also was present for the interview.

“So the brain is undergoing rapid growth during early child development,” Lanphear said. “And when tissue is undergoing rapid growth, that’s where they’re most vulnerable to poisons, like lead.”

Vancouver Island a hot spot

The instances of high lead levels found by Vancouver Island’s health authority were far more common than discovered in B.C.’s Interior.

Interior Health Authority’s testing done in June to March 2021 revealed only three facilities or one per cent of 296 child-care facilities had lead in their water above five ppb, compared to 46 per cent of such facilities on the Island.

The Health Ministry said results from Fraser Health, Vancouver Coastal and Northern Health have been delayed because of “capacity constraints caused by the COVID-19 response.”

The spokesperson was not able to explain why there was such a large discrepancy between results of testing by Island Health and Interior Health, but provided a list of possibilities.

One is that coastal water is “generally softer” and more likely to leach lead from plumbing, whereas water in the Interior can be harder and less likely to cause leaching.

Another possible reason is that older buildings are more likely to have lead in the plumbing.

Lead risk known at least five years: FOI

Lead has been found in water at child-care facilities on Vancouver Island for years before the government-ordered testing of 2020, records obtained by The Tyee reveal.

Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request by The Tyee and the Institute for Investigative Journalism show partial test results on Vancouver Island going back to 2016. They include findings that water in one daycare registered 75 ppb — more than 15 times the current recommended minimum. In 2019, Health Canada changed the maximum acceptable concentration for lead in water from 10 ppb to five ppb.

Cowichan Tribes is the largest First Nation band in the province. According to an FOI, the First Nations Health Authority was supposed to work with Cowichan Tribes to address the issue of high lead levels in their water in 2016.

Tests done in 2016 showed their community daycare had a drinking fountain with 25.6 ppb, more than five times today’s limit.

Almost four years after that, in 2020, testing revealed a drinking fountain at the same daycare had levels nine times the limit at 45 ppb.

Halalt First Nation had a similar timeline. In 2017 testing at the community daycare revealed a kitchen sink had just over 75 ppb, 15 times the maximum. In 2020, testing showed elevated levels in other taps in the community daycare with levels at 16 ppb and 30 ppb.

At least 11 of the child-care centres that serve Indigenous communities on Vancouver Island had elevated levels of lead according to testing in 2020. FNHA would not provide any specific details of what support was provided to communities to address the issue.

Implementing fixes ‘very complex’

As part of the Lead in Water Child Care Project, licensees say they were given instructions on how to test their water. They were asked to send water samples in and the results of tests were shared with licensees in a report. If tests revealed their facility had lead in their water, a list of suggested solutions was included. Licensees were then required to submit a “corrective action plan” to VIHA.

The testing process was fairly straightforward, said Laura Court, executive director of Growing Together Child Care in Duncan. But the report she received with the test results was “very complex” and hard to understand. She had to weed through it to figure out what actions were specific to their child-care facility.

The list of corrective options suggested were confusing and many were not affordable for a “non-profit daycare centre on a shoestring budget,” like the one where she worked, Court told The Tyee.

Over the phone, she read some of the suggested solutions out loud. “‘You could add a filtration system. You could replace the specific plumbing fixtures or components. You may wish to consult with a water treatment company.” She continued. “Replacing lead service lines to the water supply, contact your local government to find out.’” She paused. “Like I don’t know who’s going to take on these bigger ones.”

And none come with guarantees, Court noted, because if you don’t know where the lead is coming from, these solutions might not actually address the problem.

Flushing the taps ‘not really a solution’

The most common and cheapest solution suggested by health authorities to child-care operators with elevated levels of lead was flushing or running water anywhere for two to 15 minutes before students arrive and after six or more hours of no use.

Flushing is meant to clear any stagnant water that has been sitting in pipes. The longer water has been sitting in any plumbing with lead, the more lead it could have in it.

Lead can leach into water because of pipes, soldering or faucets that could have trace amounts of lead. Older pipes that link buildings to the main water supply, known as service lines, could also be made of lead. Over the years, regulations across Canada have limited the use of lead in plumbing. The goal is to get lead to levels as low as “reasonably achievable” said Anne-Marie Nicol, associate professor in the faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University.

But while flushing is seen as an immediate, cost-effective strategy, it wastes water and takes up staff time. There’s also not a lot of evidence on how effective it is.

Running the taps likely works as a short-term solution in most cases but lead can build up again in just 30 minutes, said SFU’s Lanphear. In cases where there are lead services lines, flushing can actually increase the amount of lead in water.

For Lanphear, flushing is “not even really a solution” because it “is flawed in two ways.

“One is, it doesn’t always work,” said Lanphear. “Second, it’s really difficult to stand there for two minutes, and let your water go while you’re getting some water to make tea or just to have a drink. And invariably, people will stop doing it, because it’s just so inconvenient. And then in some communities, if water is a problem [or] there’s limited water, then that’s going to be a real big issue too.”

An internal email between Island Health staff reveals confusion around the different flushing recommendations given to child-care facilities by the health authorities with FNHA recommending 10 minutes and Island Health recommending two minutes.

Both Nicol and Lanphear agree that flushing is not a long-term solution. Instead, it’s important to look at the specifics of each building and do more investigative testing to find the source of lead and address that.

“You really need to understand the piping system to be able to do this properly,” said Nicol. “So in my opinion, while [flushing] is good for a short-term solution, it really is not the appropriate long-term strategy. We need to be considering changing pipes as the proper way to remove lead from drinking water.”

...continued in Part 2