Island school trustee assesses lead in schools, confident water is safe

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MANITOULIN – The Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) trustee for Area 7 Manitoulin, Margaret Stringer, has taken up a personal investigation into the state of drinking water in Island schools and the handful of fixtures that have tested beyond water quality standards limits, in an effort to better understand the actual state of the infrastructure in Island schools.

“While it’s great to have visual data, the data is only as good as the questions you ask,” said Ms. Stringer, noting that the fixture identifiers on the water test reports offer only one component of a larger understanding of the infrastructure.

“Where is that fixture located? What is it used for? Is it in a locked custodial space with a ‘hand-wash-only’ sign, or has it been bagged?” she said. “Those questions are crucial for the data to make sense and be meaningful.”

RDSB posts the results of its water testing dating back to 2016 on its website. Each test result is accompanied by an alphanumeric fixture identifier code, but the location of the fixtures within the building are not explicitly stated.

To determine which fixtures tested above the limit with a more practical understanding of their uses, Ms. Stringer contacted the schools and sought that information.

The lone fixture that tested above provincial and federal standards at Assiginack Public School in 2019 is fixture 106. According to Ms. Stringer’s research, that fixture is in a staff washroom and has a sign marking it as non-potable.

The fixture at Charles C. McLean Public School in Gore Bay that tested more than three times the provincial limit is a faucet that is tucked away in a back room and no longer used by students, staff or faculty. When re-tested, its numbers were far lower, though still above the flushed federal lead content limit.

RDSB spokesperson Nicole Charette clarified an important detail to The Expositor about the state of its potable water plumbing infrastructure. As a rule, older schools tend to have copper pipes, not lead pipes, as was previously reported in this newspaper. However, the solder joining the segments together is indeed made of lead and that serves as the point of lead’s entry to the water supply.

Testing regimes have also changed in many ways since the earliest tests available in 2016. Then, schools were only required to test one-third of their drinking water fixtures per year. Beginning in 2017, that expanded to all fixtures.

Safe lead limits have also changed. Until 2019, both the provincial and federal safe limits for lead were 10 µg/L (micrograms per litre). On March 8, 2019, Health Canada cut its safe limit in half to five µg/L.

Ms. Stringer said the current model of testing one-third of all fixtures in elementary schools and one-fifth of all fixtures in secondary schools per year (meaning the entire building will be tested over a three- or five-year cycle) does have significant limitations.

“I would like to see that fixtures, especially ones that students drink out of—which could be sinks, too—be monitored annually as opposed to a third per year,” said Ms. Stringer.

However, this does come with significant challenges of its own. Water testing every fixture on an annual basis would impose three or five times more cost, depending on the school. Water testing is also mandated by the province, meaning any changes in testing would have to include schools from massive Toronto education hubs to small Manitoulin learning environments. Ms. Stringer acknowledged that the practicality of mandating annual testing might make it unattainable.

When capital expenditure projects are scheduled at Rainbow schools, changing old water lines and fixtures is added to the workload to consistently work at modernizing the buildings. At Manitoulin Secondary School, for its 50th anniversary makeover, the building’s interior plumbing is getting an overhaul, as one example.

RDSB does not presently maintain an inventory of the amount and type of piping within its buildings, and thus could not provide an estimate of the progress in replacing all of its old piping.

Ms. Stringer outlined the process that RDSB must follow when a test result exceeds acceptable standards. First, the local medical officer of health is notified and will assign corrective actions for the school. The ministries of Education and Environment, Conservation and Parks are also notified and will follow up as required.

Corrective actions at the school include daily flushing after the water has not been used for any length of time, and this must continue for 24 months past the initial test results. Other measures can include installing hand-wash-only signs, taking a fixture out of service or installing a replacement.

“Health and well-being is a critical issue for me as a trustee. I take it seriously,” said Ms. Stringer. “At the end of 2019, I can say with confidence that the water consumed by students and staff is compliant with regulations, and we’re very comfortable with that.”