National drinking water study refreshes Manitoulin concerns

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Routine tests have previously found lead in Island schools’ water

MANITOULIN – Earlier this month, a confluence of 120 journalists, academics and journalism students published the results of a year-long investigative journalism project to assess the presence of lead in Canada’s drinking water, a problem that also exists on Manitoulin Island and has been noted in water testing reports in Island schools.

“There was a report put out in 2017 for three Island schools that exceeded lead levels in their drinking water, and that was done with an independent agency. There is definitively lead piping on Manitoulin Island and that’s scattered through a lot of the older communities, unfortunately,” said Jeff Wahl of Mindemoya-based Wahl Water, a company that offers water treatment products and home testing services. 

Lead testing at schools is of particular importance because of the impact of lead on young, developing individuals. While lead poisoning is harmful at any age, it affects young people particularly strongly.

Lead is a known neurotoxin and it can impact brain development from mental capacity to motor skills, as well as impact one’s behaviour. There is no way to reverse the effects of lead poisoning contracted at an early age.

The Rainbow District School Board (RDSB), which oversees all public schools on Manitoulin Island, has undertaken lead testing in its schools in line with stricter government regulations that came into effect in 2017. Reports dating back to 2016 are available on the RDSB site.

“(RDSB) complies with rigorous water testing procedures and practices, which include regular testing and regular flushing. Any schools with lead exceedances are flushed daily,” stated RDSB spokesperson Nicole Charette in an email to The Expositor. 

RDSB’s ‘Drinking Water Reports’ page on its website lists school test results. It takes water samples at least once per calendar year between May 1 and October 31. For elementary schools, all water fountains and taps must be tested once every three years (so every school tests one-third of its fixtures per year) and for secondary schools, those fixtures must be tested once in every five years, according to Ms. Charette.

Manitoulin’s elementary schools were tested in late June and early July this year. Safe drinking water limits for lead were set out in Ontario Regulation 243/07, a regulation on drinking water in schools, private schools and child care centres. That regulation established a maximum safe level of 10 µg (micrograms) per litre.

This safe limit was recommended by Health Canada in 1992, but on March 8, 2019, its recommendation dropped in half to 5µg/L. However, the Ontario standard remains at 10 µg/L.

One fixture at Assiginack Public School tested at 12.3 µg/L at a test on June 24, 2019. Central Manitoulin Public School passed its test, while Charles C. McLean Public School in Gore Bay had one fixture with a lead level of 32.9 µg/L, more than triple the provincial limit. A follow-up test the following day showed the lead level back down to 1.2 µg/L. Little Current Public School delivered a clean test.

A test at Manitoulin Secondary School in late August 2019 showed lead at 9.44 µg/L at one fixture, though that result was labelled as “required volume not submitted” as per Ontario guidelines. That tap was retested in October and found levels below the federal guideline, as were the rest of the tested taps in the building.

One concern Mr. Wahl raised was that no neighbouring properties were cautioned about potential lead content in water when the schools tested above the lead limits in years past. Although lead in the schools is no guarantee that it would also be present in other nearby buildings, he said residents should have been notified as well so they could take extra precautions if needed.

Lead is a common substance in drinking water across Canada. Lead pipes were not phased out of new construction until the 1990s, meaning any building from before that era is likely to contain the neurotoxin within its plumbing.

The metal generally enters the water supply after it has been treated and is sent through pipes to users. If water sits in a pipe for any length of time, it begins to pick up the contaminants. This is why a common method of dealing with lead plumbing is to flush the pipes, leaving them open for three to five minutes before using the water.

“By flushing plumbing and fixtures, water that may have come in contact with lead plumbing is replaced with fresh water. How often a facility has to flush their plumbing and fixtures depends on several factors including the age of the plumbing, previous lead test results or if a device that removes lead, such as a filter, has been installed on a fixture,” states a fact sheet from the Ontario government posted on the RDSB site.

However, Mr. Wahl cautioned that if lead pipes exist within a building such as a home, a filter at the water source will be ineffective since lead will still leach from the pipes as it sits. The whole-home filtration system is only effective for buildings with other pipes, such as copper, within their walls.

For structures that use lead pipes throughout, water treatment at the point of use—the place where water leaves the plumbing and can be used—is the only effective strategy.

According to Mr. Wahl, the Canadian Water Quality Association suggests users install point-of-use reverse osmosis, distillation or activated block carbon units to reduce lead limits. He served on its board of directors from 2015 to 2018.

Heating or boiling water does not remove lead. Because water evaporates when boiled, this can actually increase the concentration of lead. The metal cannot be removed through ultraviolet treatments or sediment filters. Water jug filters also do not generally filter out lead, though special cartridges can be used to achieve this effect.

Public Health Sudbury and Districts does not test for lead during a routine health unit test of a home’s well water supply, though lead testing can be accomplished through laboratories and water treatment suppliers. Home testing kits can be purchased separately.