Lead levels in the drinking water at some Quebec schools still too high


About a year after the Quebec government released a report on the levels of lead in the drinking water in schools, some school boards have yet to make all the necessary repairs.


Among the reasons cited for the delays are government financing issues, labour shortages at plumbing and water testing companies, difficulty procuring parts and the pandemic.


According to data released in 2021 by the Ministry of Education, more than a third of Quebec’s public school fountains and faucets contained too much lead and about two-thirds “respect the new Health Canada guideline of five micrograms of lead per litre of water (5 ug/L).


The scope of the work needed to rectify the issues range from the installation of filters to “major renovations of the plumbing networks,” including the “replacement of obsolete plumbing fixtures and pipes,” the summary explained.


This past spring the ministry requested a progress report from school boards and service centres to evaluate “the status of the system,” spokesperson Bryan St-Louis told CTV News. He said, “an update will be published shortly.”


WAITING FOR ‘FINANCING’


In the meantime, CTV contacted a couple of school boards and the largest service centre in Montreal to ask if they’re making headway.


The Centre de services scolaire de Montréal (CSSDM) which runs 233 schools, acknowledged there are supply delays and a shortage of plumbing contractors getting in the way of the work.


“That being said, this is not the reason why we have 34.3% of water points that do not meet the requirements of the Ministry,” said spokesperson Alain Perron.


“It should be noted that we do not currently have any work planned for all these water points. We are waiting for the instructions of the “lead in water” orientation committee of the Ministry of Education for the prioritization of the work, as well as the associated financing,” he said.


CTV contacted the ministry again to ask why the work hasn’t been prioritized and why financing has not been forthcoming if that was indeed the case but did not receive an immediate reply.


On Friday morning, the ministry responded it’s in the middle of preparing a guide for schools on how to maintain good practices when it comes to drinking water, but it’s not known when it will be made available.


As for the financing, there appear to be some contradictions about what is and isn’t being provided to schools.


St-Louis said on Friday, schools have access to funds for maintenance work allotted to schools annually.


“In addition, since 2022-2023, the budgetary measure for the conservation of drinking water has also made it possible to apply for specific financial assistance for the correction or replacement of plumbing equipment identified as non-compliant following a lead screening,” he wrote.


LABOUR SHORTAGE AND SUPPLY ISSUES


Given the age and condition of many of the province’s schools, a subject that came up often during the last provincial election campaign the large-scale plumbing project is ambitious.


But that doesn’t make it less of a priority, said English Montreal School Board spokesperson (EMSB), Michael Cohen, who said they’re aiming for 100 per cent compliance.


“We’re pleased to say we’ve accomplished what is needed to be done in most of our youth sector and adult buildings,” said Cohen.


According to the ministry’s 2021 report, the EMSB had to remediate 89 water sources in its elementary schools and 61 in their adult sector and high schools, where lead levels exceeded the norm.


“Out of 86 water points in our elementary schools (identified by the EMSB), 65 have been corrected. And in our high schools and adult sector, out of 61 water points 35 have been corrected,” he said.


Cohen said the work has been held up in part because they’ve had other health-related issues to attend to like addressing air quality concerns due to COVID-19.


“The other problem is that right now we’re getting the corrective measures checked, the water quality tested again but the firm, the engineering firm we’re using, is having a shortage of staff,” said Cohen.


The schools’ water fountains all have filters, Cohen said, so students and staff are still being advised to run the water for one minute before drinking.


If they plan to drink from a tap, the advice is to let the water run for five minutes before consuming.


The education ministry agreed with the contention that it has been difficult for school boards to get work completed for reasons beyond their control.


“It is true that supply and labor issues complicate the execution of the work,” said St-Louis.


The Lester B. Pearson school board said it’s already taken numerous measures to eliminate any risks associated with lead in the drinking water.


In a statement to CTV the administration wrote it “maintains that the quality of its water for consumption purposes is perfectly safe at its different schools and centres.”


The board also said its rates of conformity are higher than those included in the ministry report because the report did not contain updated information.


According to school board spokesperson Darren Becker, about 20 per cent of the water systems in its schools still need to be assessed. Of the sources already analysed, 80 percent in elementary schools conform to guidelines, he said, as do 72 per cent at high schools and continuing education facilities.


The ministry said it will continue to “work closely” with school boards to make all corrections as quickly as possible.


It maintains that with the mitigation measures in place: filters, preventive flushing procedures and closing off some sources altogether, “the health of the occupants is not compromised,” St-Louis said.


With files from The Canadian Press