Mitigation efforts have brought down lead levels in school's water

Schools deal with lead pipes

A recent national report found elevated levels of lead in the drinking water of several Thompson-Okanagan schools, but mitigation work has since brought those levels down.

The year-long investigative report, facilitated by Concordia's Institute for Investigative Journalism, found almost 45 per cent of public schools in B.C. had lead concentrations in their tap water exceeding five parts per billion between 2016 and 2019.

In March 2019, Health Canada changed its maximum allowable lead concentration in drinking water from 10 ppb to five ppb.

In Kelowna, provincial testing in 2016 found lead levels between five and 10 ppb at a number of schools, including Rutland Middle School, Raymer Elementary, Quigley Elementary, AS Matheson Elementary, North Glenmore Elementary, McWilliams Centre, South Kelowna Elementary, Central School, Pearson Road Elementary, South Rutland Elementary, Springvalley Middle School, Casorso Elementary, Black Mountain Elementary, Anne McClymont Elementary and Rutland Elementary.

The data was recently published by Concordia's media partners, the Toronto Star and Global News.

After concerns were raised in 2016 about lead levels across B.C., the Central Okanagan School District implemented several mitigation efforts.

“We found that there was lead particulate in the water, under the safety standard of the day, but we wanted to make sure we did everything to mitigate that anyway,” said Kevin Kaardal, School District 23 superintendent.

“We replaced older water fountains, where the tubing in those might have some lead particulate. We put in flushing systems into our older schools that keep the water flowing so that lead can't pool.”

Since 2016, school districts in B.C. have had to report annual testing of their water to the province, and since the mitigation work was put in place, all schools in the Central Okanagan fall “well below” the current allowable standard of five ppb.

“Bottom line, the water in our schools is absolutely safe,” Kaardal said.

The highest lead concentration in the region was found at Vavenby Elementary School, about 1.5 hours north of Kamloops. An October 2017 test found lead concentrations of 427 ppb, more than 85 times the current 2019 Health Canada allowable maximum.

Diana Skoglund, communications manager with School District 73, says since 2016, Vavenby Elementary no longer uses its tap water for drinking or cooking. They now only use bottled water. The district has implemented a water flushing system across its other schools, along with recently installing lead-filtering systems.

In the South Okanagan, tests from 2017 showed lead concentrations above 10 ppb at KVR Middle School, Uplands Elementary School, ConnectEd Continuing Education, and West Bench Elementary.

Kevin Lorenz, secretary-treasurer of School District 67, says the four schools have undergone remediation since the 2017 results were found, and subsequent tests have shown water to be below the previously mandated 10 ppb.

“We have not completed retesting at all sites based on the new 2019 standards but will continue to test in accordance with the ministry mandate and anticipate no issues with being able to consistently achieve testing results below five ppb,” Lorenz said.

School District 67 also now employs flushing at their schools to limit lead exposure to water. A March 2019 test at Summerland Secondary found preflushing concentrations of lead to be 15.5 ppb, while post-flushing concentrations were 5.76. Lorenz says the elevated levels were due to a water fountain that has since been taken out of service.

Elevated levels were also found at Crossroads Alternate School and BX Elementary in Vernon in 2016, but flushing protocols were also put in place there in September 2016.

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