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Schools in Ottawa identified in study showing high levels of lead in drinking water

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A new study by the Investigative Journalism Bureau at the University of Toronto is shining a light on a persistent issue in schools and daycares across Ontario — lead in the drinking water.

The study compiled publicly available data from approximately 100,000 tests for lead in Ontario public school drinking water between 2019 and 2023.

It found nearly half of the province's 4,875 public schools logged at least one test result that exceeded Health Canada's maximum safety guideline of 5 parts per billion (ppb).

"There is no safe level of lead according to the experts and yet, it appears in sometimes breathtaking numbers in schools and daycares across the province," said Robert Cribb, the director of the Investigative Journalism Bureau.

"We look at the data every year and it never seems to get better. The lead remains there, and it continues to contaminate everything from drinking fountains to sinks across the province. Ottawa is one of the areas where there was a conspicuous number of high levels of exceedances in schools and daycares."

In Ottawa, the two schools with the highest rate of tests that exceeded the federal guidelines were First Avenue Public School and Cambridge Street Community Public School.

"At Cambridge Street Public School in Ottawa, 41 out of 44 tests returned with levels over the federal guideline, with four tests ranging between 105 ppb and 136 ppb," reads a portion of the study.

"First Avenue Public School in Ottawa conducted 61 tests between 2019 and 2023, with more than 80 per cent showing lead levels over 5 ppb, two of which reached 1,500 ppb and 1,730 ppb."

OCDSB challenges study

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), however, is taking exception with the study, pointing to the fact that in Ontario, the maximum acceptable concentration of lead in drinking water is 10 ppb, not 5 ppb as laid out by Health Canada.

The school board is also taking issue with the way the testing data has been presented.

"Since 2017, in accordance with provincial legislation, all designated drinking locations in OCDSB elementary and secondary schools have been tested. Testing is based on the provincial standard of 10 ppb. Where water samples were found to exceed the provincial standard, action has been taken to address this," reads a portion of a statement from the school board sent to CTV News.

The OCDSB says water fixtures are not returned to service until lead levels are below provincial requirements. In some cases, this is done by replacing the tap or fountain, moving further back through plumbing lines, or adding lead filters.

Once the work is done, multiple tests may be taken to ensure the lead levels have been reduced.

"This may give the impression that there are multiple separate exceedances, when in fact this may result from several tests taken to fix one problem," reads the statement. "We take issues of safe drinking water seriously. Any water points which have been discovered through past test results to exceed provincial limits have since been fixed. At the same time, we are concerned that recent reports on this serious issue have been presented in a misleading way. By compiling all test results together and not identifying the number of water points that have been taken out of service and fixed, the report gives the impression that issues are not resolved or more water points are affected."

In an update on Wednesday, the OCDSB added that "more than half" of the samples taken at both schools were taken in 2020 during the period of school closures due to COVID-19.  The board says more than half of the test results referenced for First Avenue and Cambridge schools were resamples of water fixtures.

"The two test results cited were both from the same water point," the OCDSB said when referring to the First Avenue school.

"Staff investigated the issue and the fixture was opened for use after we were able to ensure safe test results."

Still, Cribb says it's an issue that needs more attention as opposed to reactionary "Band-Aid solutions".

"If you have lead pipes delivering water to the mouths of children, that's a problem, and it's not going to go away from flushing or removing one fountain," he said. "It is a consistent problem that every expert that we have talked to says needs to be addressed and the only way, ultimately, to fix the problem is not by shutting down a fountain here and flushing a tap there, it's by removing lead from the infrastructure of the schools."

Lead exposure has been associated with nervous system effects, cardiovascular disease, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems.

For children, lead exposure is associated with lowered IQ scores and a greater risk of attention-related behaviours.

Local MPP raising the issue

With that in mind, Ottawa South Liberal MPP John Fraser says he hopes to see the issue of lead in the drinking water at schools and daycares become a more significant talking point at Queen's Park.

"We do have to address the backlog of school repairs. There are some very old schools, and we need new schools, and we need repairs there," he said. "In the immediate and the short-term, where do we have the most significant problems and what are the measures that the school boards, by way of assistance through the Ministry of Education, addressing this and how are they going to address this? Is it through flushing the pipes? Is it by providing clean drinking water? Is it by providing more transparency about the testing? We need to make sure kids are safe and parents are informed."

Fraser adds, he would like to see the provincial guidelines fall in life with the Health Canada guidelines of 5 ppb.

In the meantime, the City of Ottawa says the drinking water in Ottawa is safe.

"The City of Ottawa's drinking water does not contain lead. Some private properties, including schools and daycares, may have lead solder joints or fixtures which contain some lead," said director of linear water services Marilyn Journeaux in a statement. "Similarly, service pipes built before 1955 may also be made of lead."

Journeaux notes that residents can find more information about Ottawa's drinking water on the City of Ottawa's website.

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