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A third of Ontario schools still have dangerous levels of lead in drinking water – two years after the province pledged to fix it

Robert Cribb, Andrew Bailey, Inori Roy, the
June 14, 2021

In 2019, after news reports revealed nine per cent of all lead tests in Ontario’s schools and daycares exceeded the national safety guideline, the province said it was working with schools to fix the lead pipes tainting children’s water.

Two years later, the scale of the problem remains unchanged.

The most recent data shows one in 10 water quality tests from Ontario schools and daycares found lead levels above Health Canada’s maximum accepted concentration of 5 parts per billion (ppb), a Toronto Star/Investigative Journalism Bureau investigation has found.

As with two years ago, roughly a third of public schools that tested for lead found at least one exceedance, while another 60 private schools and nearly 150 daycares had at least one exceedance.

Some of the schools with lead concentrations surpassing safe levels were the same ones a Star investigation identified in 2019 as repeatedly failing water quality tests.

Lead can impact brain development, including lowering IQ and triggering behavioural disorders. Young children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning because they absorb the neurotoxin at a rate at least four times that of adults.

“Attention really needs to be paid to the specific schools and student populations that are experiencing the burden of the lead in the drinking water,” said Emmalin Buajitti, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto.

Buajitti was the lead researcher in a recent study that found students in Ontario schools with lead exceedances between 2008 and 2016 scored lower in reading, writing and math testing.

Eight per cent more students in those schools failed to achieve the provincial standard for math, six per cent more failed to achieve the standard for reading and 10 per cent more failed to achieve the provincial standard for writing, according to the March 2021 study published in the Annals of Epidemiology.

In a written statement, the provincial Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks said Ontario has “the most stringent provincial testing regime in Canada,” but also noted the province is considering new measures, including lowering its lead safety guideline of 10 ppb to meet the stricter federal level (5 ppb) and mandating schools and daycares to tell parents and students when lead exceedances are found.

“Ontario is committed to protecting children from exposure to lead,” the statement reads. “The province is reviewing its current policies and consulting on further actions to reduce levels of lead in drinking water.”

When high lead levels are detected in a facility’s water supply, the local health unit and the school are required to take action. The most common responses include flushing the pipes (when staff open the taps and let cold water flow for at least five minutes), installing a filter or decommissioning the tap.

The most recent provincial lead test data, recorded during tests conducted between April 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020, include 221 tests in which lead levels exceeded 100 pbb-- 20 times the national standard. More than 90 per cent of those were in public schools.

At Beverley School in downtown Toronto, which serves students with developmental and physical disabilities, six of the eight tests conducted in 2019/20 registered exceedances ranging from 6.4 ppb to 110 ppb.

“I am quite shocked to hear that,” said Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof, whose 11-year-old son has autism and intractable epilepsy, and has been at the school since kindergarten.

Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof and her 11-year old son Lucas at Beverley School. The Toronto school, which serves students with developmental and physical disabilities, saw six of the eight lead tests conducted in 2019/20 registered exceedances ranging from 6.4 ppb to 110 ppb. | Marcus Oleniuk photo

“At the same time, I’m kind of not surprised...A lot of this has to do with the fact that there isn’t enough money put towards education, and especially putting it towards repairs. Schools are falling apart.”

Despite being active on the school council and familiar with the Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) website and communications, Pruska-Oldenhof said she wasn’t aware of the lead exceedances at Beverley until contacted by reporters-- a fact she describes as “unnerving.”

The TDSB recently began publishing the results of lead testing for all of its schools as part of a commitment to “increase transparency and accountability.”

But Pruska-Oldenhof said that’s not enough since many parents might not know what to look for. She says the province should set firm standards detailing how schools should communicate with parents.

Ryan Bird, a TDSB spokesperson, said the 71-year-old Beverley School with an enrolment of 75 is among many across Canada’s largest school board that struggle with lead from old fixtures and lead-laced solder in plumbing joints.

The drinking water fixture that triggered the highest reading at Beverley could not be brought into compliance and was ultimately replaced, he said.

The cost of removing lead altogether in TDSB schools would be “astronomical,” Bird said.

“It would be incredibly difficult to eliminate it completely across 583 schools considering our current maintenance and renewal backlog is already north of $4 billion.”

The Star/IJB investigation obtained the data for this story from the provincial government, which publishes the findings of all tests each year. Ontario is the only province that makes comprehensive lead testing data from schools and daycares available online.

At Rockland District High School in Clarence-Rockland, a small city half an hour east of Ottawa, spikes in lead concentration in drinking fountain fixtures reached as high as 1,170 ppb-- more than 200 times the national guideline. After conducting 24 tests over four months, the school averaged 114 ppb.

The high school registered the second-highest frequency of exceedances beyond 100 ppb of lead in Ontario in 2019/20. The neighbouring Rockland Public School was the highest.

The Rockland schools are part of the Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB). In 2019/20, Upper Canada registered 44 exceedances of 100 ppb.

The board attributed the exceedances to fixtures in both the high school and public school, which were replaced in order to meet provincial standards.

“Our school board goes beyond the provincially mandated requirements related to water testing and treatment to ensure the safety of our students and staff, and we’ve done this by sampling more fixtures than required under the Ontario regulations,” the statement reads. “The Upper Canada District School Board follows or exceeds all provincial testing protocols and is compliant with all measures.”

Schools and daycares are supposed to test their drinking water sources at least once every three years, though many choose to run tests multiple times a year.

Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) registered 63 exceedances over 100 ppb-- the most of any board in the province. In comparison, the Toronto District School Board registered 12.

“Water fixtures are not returned to service until lead levels in drinking water are below provincial requirements,” reads a statement from the board. “If fixtures are taken out of service, they are made inaccessible through signage, turned off and are only put back into use once we have been able to obtain satisfactory test results.”

At Immaculata High School, a Catholic school in Ottawa, 17 of the 22 water quality tests conducted in 2019/20-- 77 per cent-- indicated lead levels higher than national guidelines.

An Ottawa Catholic School Board spokesperson said staff had to install a reverse osmosis system to address high lead levels coming from a faucet on the third floor of the building. The board has also imposed “daily and weekly flushing requirements” on some fixtures in the school, reads a statement.

But many experts challenge the provincial protocol around flushing as a solution for high lead levels, insisting the only way to solve the problem is actually removing the toxin from the building.

“Flushing should be viewed as a short-term fix,” said Bruce Lanphear, a leading Canadian water researcher at Simon Fraser University. “Anybody who thinks they can flush a fountain or tap at the beginning of the week or before school every morning to eliminate excessive amounts of lead in drinking water is fooling themselves and putting children at risk for unacceptably high lead exposure.”

Bruce Lanphear, a leading Canadian water researcher at Simon Fraser University, said any school exclusively relying on the practice of flushing pipes to mitigate lead levels "is fooling themselves and putting children at risk for unacceptably high lead exposure." | Mackenzie Lad photo

He said lead results over 10 ppb should be “urgently addressed” and schools with levels above 5 ppb should adopt a five-year strategy to eliminate taps or fountains with lead contamination.

Removing lead pipes that wind their way through building walls and floors is expensive. And the province is already facing a $16.3 billion backlog of repairs.

Ontario is investing $1.4 billion to repair and renew existing schools during the 2020-21 school year, the province said. “This funding can also be used to address lead in schools such as the replacement of drinking water fixtures and related plumbing systems.”

Advocacy group Fix Our Schools said its research has shown the $1.4 billion only covers the yearly maintenance required across the province-- not the backlog.

Some schools have made repeated appearances in lead data over the years.

One in seven lead tests at the prestigious Ridley College in St. Catharines in 2019/20 exceeded the national guideline after being featured in the Star’s 2019 investigation into the issue.

In a written statement, the school said the results include tests at all water sources on campus, not just drinking water sources, and that all fixtures “currently comply with the federal standard.” Past exceedances were reported to public health officials and addressed, the school said.

Ottawa’s Wesboro Academy, another private school featured two years ago with nine exceedances, had another eight in the most recent testing data.

Meg Garrard, who runs the K-8 school with about 160 students, said the results reflect her decision to test fixtures across the building-- 52 tests in all last school year-- in the interests of student safety.

“We were trying to be extra thorough, at great expense,” she said. “If I wanted to play the system to make the results look really good...we could have tested one sample on a tap we know is good and I would have met all the requirements. We’re trying to go above and beyond to be extra vigilant.”

Garrard, whose own child attends the school in a classroom where the water fixture exceeded the lead level, said the results were reported to Ottawa health officials who advised her that no structural changes were needed as long as she flushed the pipes daily to reduce lead levels.

Three per cent of daycares, which care for the most vulnerable children when it comes to lead, had a lead exceedance in 2019/20.

Yes Kids Christian Childcare in Brantford had one of the worst rates with 72 per cent of tests exceeding national guidelines. The daycare, which currently has 23 children attending aged 18 months to four-years old, averaged 29 ppb over the course of 18 tests, peaking at 272 ppb.

Rien VandenEnden, the property manager at the daycare, said high lead was found in a fountain with standing water which was cleared by flushing. Another fountain had to be replaced but even after removal, the results were “much lower but still not compliant,” requiring the further step of installing a carbon filter.

Less than 10 minutes away from Yes Kids, A Child’s Paradise Too daycare registered exceedances in 39 per cent of all tests in 2019/20.

After getting an elevated test result, the daycare, which is licensed for 63 kids aged 18 months to four years, contracted a bottled water service to ensure children and staff didn’t consume from the taps, daycare owner David Rae said in an email.

Rae said public health officials told him that flushing the water and using filters on faucets should mitigate the problem.

In a written statement, the province said Brantford is one of 21 Ontario communities that have “identified a community lead problem” and has completed upgrades to its water treatment plant and implemented a lead service replacement program that removes lead lines leading into homes and businesses.

Filip Pajtondziev, manager of Environmental Health at the Brant County Health Unit, said the daycares are attached to older heritage buildings, which can contribute to increased lead levels.

While not required by provincial rules, Rae said he voluntarily informed parents about the lead findings.

“Whether required or not I would have wanted to know if it were my kids,” he said.

In its statement, the ministry said it will be “proposing changes that build on Ontario’s already stringent lead protection framework” that include “increasing transparency (such as requiring notice to parents) of lead testing results.”

Robert Cribb is a Toronto-based investigative reporter for the Star. Reach him at Andrew Bailey is a freelance data analyst for the Star. Inori Roy is a Toronto-based reporter for the Investigative Journalism Bureau. Reach her via email at