Photo by Whitehorse Star
Pictured above: BRENDAN HANLEY and KYLE NIGHTINGALE
Photo by Whitehorse Star
Pictured above: BRENDAN HANLEY and KYLE NIGHTINGALE
High lead levels in water have resulted in the territorial government needing to replace more than 100 water fixtures in some Yukon schools – including kitchen, classroom and bathroom sink taps, and water fountains.
That’s according to the Department of Education. On its website as of this morning, it listed about 157 fixtures that need to be replaced.
Some schools have already had their drinking fountains shut off. They are: Eliza Van Bibber in Pelly Crossing, Grey Mountain Primary in Whitehorse’s Riverdale area, Nelnah Bessie John in Beaver Creek, Robert Service School in Dawson City and Wood Street Centre in downtown Whitehorse.
The shut-offs come after the territory received a suggestion from the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Brendan Hanley, that it consider testing other schools in the territory after maintenance work at Faro’s school showed significant levels of lead in its water during last school year.
A department spokesperson, Kyle Nightingale, explained that water fountains and taps in bathrooms and change rooms were tested last month, with the department receiving results back in about late August.
“Majority of our water fixtures and fountains are testing within the national standard and are safe to continue using,” the communications analyst said Tuesday afternoon. There will be signs placed at taps and sinks that are safe for washing hands but not drinking, he said.
Those national standards are set by Health Canada, Hanley explained, noting it sits at about 10 micrograms of lead per litre.
“Drinking water should have a concentration at no more than this,” he said, but “really, the overall aim is to reduce lead levels to as low as you can.”
The department still wanted to ensure there is access to water, said Nightingale, explaining that “we still want students and staff to be able to wash their hands.”
Work has already begun on fixtures that need immediate fixing, with the department shutting off some taps as an “interim measure,” Nightingale said.
According to the department’s webpage, the school with the greatest number of water fixtures that need to be replaced are Robert Service School (34), Eliza Van Bibber (26) and Porter Creek Secondary (20).
At the bottom of the list is Kluane Lake (0), St. Elias Community School (1) and Grey Mountain Primary (1).
Once replaced, the government will then retest the newer fountains to ensure they are meeting the standard.
“It’s not a matter of kids having exposure to alarming amounts of lead – it’s making sure lead in all fixtures is compliant with modern standards,” Hanley said.
The department hasn’t tested every school just yet: the 18 or so listed this year were tested because they were built before 1990.
Those constructed after 1990 will be tested next summer, and a list provided by Nightingale shows that includes about 12 more schools.
“There were obvious advantages to doing it relatively quickly and while the kids were out of school,” Hanley said, noting he’s not surprised with the results.
Nightingale also explained that the department decided to carry out testing to avoid any impact to school programming – plus doing it at a time when there’s a controlled environment, with fewer students around, is ideal.
Hanley agreed, noting that “we’re talking about long-term, making sure that everything in the environment that we can control in terms of lead, is controlled to an environmental standard.”
The recommended 1990 timeline is important because lead was often used in plumbing materials before 1988 – after which national building standards were updated to reduce its use.
The National Plumbing Code of Canada had initially allowed lead in pipes until about 1975, a federal government webpage shows, and cut out the material in solder about a decade later.
But the stifling of the taps is more of a proactive step, Hanley said, explaining that traces of lead in water do not necessarily mean it’s cause for alarm, as there are limited short-term health risks.
“These are not levels that would cause any kind of clinical effect.”
Traces of the metal are commonly found in the air, dust, food, soil and other consumer products like pipes and paint.
Hanley noted the latter is especially dangerous if ingested by a child, for instance – but only mass exposures to lead could be more cause for alarm: “not in the sort of tiny numbers that we’re seeing from occasional sources of ingestion, such as taps from schools.”
The naturally-occurring metal means that merely using a drinking fixture that has traces of it tends to rank lower on the scale of lead toxicity, which is measured in part by the blood lead levels (BLLs) of both children and adults.
“There are a number of effects associated with lead – but they tend to be multi-system,” Hanley said. They can impact the nervous and cognitive systems, eventually impacting a person’s behaviour in extreme cases, he added.
“Some sensory functions like hearing and vision, reproductive and cardiovascular healths (can be impacted).”
Things like increased blood pressure, kidney dysfunction and neurological effects have been considered by studies – the strongest link so far is between high levels of BLL and reductions in intelligence quotient scores, a federal webpage notes.
While this is possible, Hanley said, it’s likely to only be in severe cases of poisoning.
“That’s when people are exposed to lead poisoning, which is in acute situations.”
Because lead from drinking water is not easily absorbed through the skin or by breathing, exposure from bathing and cleaning is not a major concern.
But the government being proactive is a step in the right direction, Hanley said, especially when it involves younger populations.
“Findings at Del Van Gorder (in Faro) gave us an opportunity to say we need to do this in a systematic way,” he said.
The territory is joining other jurisdictions like Ontario and Saskatchewan by paying more attention to plumbing and lead levels, he added.
Nightingale added that because Hanley assured there was no immediate risk to health after last year’s findings from the Faro school, the department was able to take its time and weigh its options before beginning to send out samples to be tested this summer.
He confirmed this morning that those samples were tested by Richmond B.C.’s Caro Analytical Services.
“Wherever possible, in order to protect the health and safety (of students), we take those steps.”
Some steps that can be taken to reduce exposure of lead include: only using cold tap water when drinking or cooking, since higher temperatures can increase the likelihood of leaching lead and other metals, and flushing out water that has been sitting still for a number of hours.
That can include clearing the water lines in laundry machines, toilets and showers as well as sinks.
At home, parents of especially young children can limit lead exposure by ensuring there is little to no dust in the areas.
Dirt and household dust tend to be one of the more common sources of lead that those under six are exposed to.
Other sources of lead include products like jewelry, crystal and ceramics, and supplies like paint.
Meanwhile, Nightingale mentioned there was a maintenance budget to manage any upgrades.
He was unable to confirm specific associated costs, as the work was ongoing.
He did note that it could be a changing figure as the department continues to identify fixtures that need replacing.
Hanley said his priority was to test older schools, as he expects they would have higher levels, so he’s glad the department was able to do the testing this summer.
“That timeline can be pretty flexible; I would be surprised to find exceedances in schools with modern fixtures.”
The ultimate goal of the department is to have fixtures replaced this fall, then begin testing for the newer schools next summer.
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