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28th September 2021
PART 2 - continued from Part 1

Complex layers of responsibility

According to a consultation in 2017 done by Health Canada on lead in drinking water, schools and daycare buildings can be particularly difficult to assess for lead in drinking water because the plumbing is often complex and has lots of components. The document recommended that daycares and schools test their taps at least once per year.

By 2017, testing for lead in water at all B.C. schools became mandatory every three years.

Testing between 2016 and 2019 revealed that almost 45 per cent of public schools in the province had at least one water source above five parts per billion.

This investigation by The Tyee shows the problem, to similar degree, extends to child-care centres on Vancouver Island.

Regular testing for lead in water is still not required by law in child-care facilities in B.C.

However, the Ministry of Health said that all licensed child-care operators must ensure safe drinking water is available to children. In an email they wrote that some health authorities “require water screening as part of the licensing process for new child-care facilities” and “VIHA requires child-care facilities to conduct an initial water quality test for lead and complete regular lead testing as direct[ed] by the Community Care Facilities Licensing Program.”

It seems “obvious” that we would want to reduce children’s exposure to lead, said Nicol. “I don’t see that we often have the political will to adopt what we know in science to be the right strategy.”

“I think there needs to be definitely more action taken in regards to the safety of our water,” said Rebecca Beauchamp.

Beauchamp’s facility was using filtered water systems even before the test results showed their facility had lead in the water. But solutions beyond flushing take money and time beyond the capacity of many child-care centres, experts and daycare workers told the Tyee. Beauchamp suggested there be a specific fund for any facility that needs support.

The Health Ministry said there is money available to address the issue through various funds.

One source of funding, for example, is the Childcare BC Maintenance Fund, which has invested more than $5 million to support over 1,600 child-care providers since its creation in 2018 by the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

That comes to an average of $3,125 per facility spent on necessary repairs due to emergencies. In B.C, there are at least 4,400 child-care facilities. Fountains with filters can cost between $1,000 to $1,500 a piece. Simply equipping every B.C. daycare with such equipment therefore would exhaust the Childcare BC Maintenance Fund.

Some solutions might be beyond the control of the child-care facilities. If lead is found in city plumbing or if water is acidic, municipal action might be needed to address the issue. Experts say further investigative testing would make the most effective solution clear. Lanphear said that multiple levels of government have to work together to get it done. “I think it has to be a collaboration, and it has to be the schools and local and provincial public health authorities.”

A 36-page guideline published by the Health Ministry’s health protection branch, describes “the issue of who is responsible for lead in drinking water” as “complex.”

There are multiple stakeholders involved and five statues that could apply to addressing lead in drinking water depending on whether the building is private or public and where the lead is coming from. Regardless of where the lead is coming from, health authorities are responsible for interpreting any test results and reviewing mitigation plans.

When The Tyee attempted to map responsibility for fixing the known problem of too high lead levels in B.C. daycares and schools, we reached out the province’s various health authorities. All declined to answer questions. Instead, they directed us to the Health Ministry who answered questions via email.

The ministry told us that it has a, “very specific role” focused on drinking water policy development. It works with Health Canada, provincial health authorities, other ministries and stakeholders to provide advice, education and advocacy around reducing lead in drinking water. The ministry agreed that flushing is a “short-term solution only” and recommended followup testing to develop a long-term solution.

The ministry provided summary results of testing but would not provide detailed results, such as the lead levels detected at each child-care facility. It directed us to file a Freedom of Information Request for more information on testing.

Lanphear believes this information should be made available to the public. “This is public health results; public health data isn’t useful unless it’s accessible to the public. The fact that you had to go get a FOI to see these results is a sad testament, I think, to the state of public health today".

Water lessons

The Indigenous perspectives that Beauchamp and her colleagues bring to their classrooms is rooted in acknowledging that water is sacred. Water is meant to cleanse us, replenish us and sustain us.

It’s hard knowing that the water coming out of the taps at XaXe SŦELIṮḴEL Childcare Centre in Victoria is not safe to drink, says Beauchamp, who was born and raised in New Zealand and is Māori on her dad’s side from the Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi.

She has found other ways to build a connection to water for her kids.

On some days, she takes the class down to the nearby Colquitz Creek to watch the stream run and release salmon fry. She wants to help young minds understand that water is more than just a drinking source; it’s key to sustaining ecosystems, Beauchamp explained.

“Before colonization, anybody could have gone to streams and rivers and had water, right? And now they’ve put in all these systems that have tainted it.”

This investigation grew out “Clean Water, Broken Promises,” a previous investigative collaboration led by the Institute for Investigative Journalism focused on water issues in First Nations. [Tyee]