Concerned parents are asking why more information isn’t being shared and action taken at local schools where elevated lead levels continue to be found in the drinking water.

A number of schools in Windsor and Essex County are showing levels of lead in water fountains that exceed federal and provincial health guidelines, and that has some parents worried over how much of it their kids might be ingesting.

Tara Varga said she’s “disgusted” that neither the school her daughter attends nor the school board advised parents when a test of the taps revealed the presence of lead at levels which health authorities believe can cause impairments in children’s developing brains.

“As a parent, it’s not acceptable. Something should be given to the parents, so they can make choices,” said Varga, who chairs the parent advisory council at Tecumseh’s St. André French Immersion school.

St. André was one of two schools in the Windsor Essex Catholic District School Board system and five in the Greater Essex County District School Board that showed lead levels in drinking water samples at or above 10 parts per billion — a level at which Ontario mandates “immediate corrective action” — in independent testing conducted last year.

A Toronto Star investigation revealed hundreds of Ontario schools and daycares exceeded the maximum acceptable levels for lead content in drinking water in 2016. The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change recently released the province-wide lead testing results.

“It’s better to know than not to know,” said Phil Wong, manager of health inspections with the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, which must be informed of any lead test results exceeding 10 parts per billion. “Most times,” he said, ridding a school’s water pipes of elevated lead levels is simply a matter of flushing them out more frequently.

Schools, which must test annually for lead levels, are required to flush out their water pipes, drinking fountains and faucets used for food preparation at the start of each week. Schools with any tests above 10 ppb, such as Riverside and General Amherst high schools and Sandwich West and Hugh Beaton public schools, must flush their pipes daily.

According to some international health authorities, any trace at all of lead in drinking water is unacceptable and a risk to children. Ottawa is currently studying a panel’s recommendation to reduce Canada’s 10 ppb standard to five ppb.

To put that figure into context, one part per billion is the equivalent of one drop of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool. But in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has set the maximum contaminant level “goal” for lead in drinking water at zero parts per billion. “There is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood,” both the EPA and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contend.

“Five parts per billion would be great — the lower the better. (Discover how to lower lead levels at home) You want to reduce lead exposure as much as possible,” said Wong.

Varga said options for schools with elevated sampling results might include installing filters, bringing in bottled water or encouraging parents to pack drinks with their children’s snacks and lunches. She said her daughter is typical of kids who are naturally drawn to the school water fountains.

“I told her I do not want her drinking out of the water fountain — it’s not safe,” said Varga.

Tara Varga and her daughter, Brenna, are shown in front of St. Andre French Immersion Catholic Elementary School in Tecumseh on Oct. 10, 2017. Tara Varga, chair of school’s parents’ council, is upset that drinking water tests for lead contamination required for all Ontario schools revealed St. Andre has high lead levels but parents were not informed. JASON KRYK / WINDSOR STAR
A group of parents and students from St. André French Immersion Catholic Elementary School are seen on Oct. 10, 2017. JASON KRYK / WINDSOR STAR

But school officials insist most of the recent tests that indicate excessive lead levels are from standing water samples. Subsequent tests after water has been flushed through the system usually indicate acceptable levels, they say.

“The flushing protocols typically work,” said WECDSB communications co-ordinator Stephen Fields. Where the traces of lead are coming from is “difficult to source,” he said, adding there are no lead pipes at any of the local Catholic system’s schools and the tap water in use comes from the same public sources that service the rest of the local municipalities.

“We’d never allow anybody in our schools to drink unsafe water,” said Fields.

Until this year, Ontario’s schools and daycares were required to each test at one location annually. Using a phase-in period that began July 1, every drinking fountain and faucet used in food preparation at those locations will require annual testing.

It’s one of the reasons preliminary 2017 testing results show a spike in instances of maximum exceedances for lead levels within the local public school board, a spokeswoman said.

Kathy Quenneville, energy and environmental officer with the GECDSB, said 12 different public board schools had lead levels this year that tested above the allowable maximum and required consultation with the health unit on corrective action.

“Eleven of the 12 this year have been resolved, and one is in the process of being corrected,” said Quenneville. That 12th problem spot is a drinking fountain at Windsor’s Massey high school that remains bagged pending a plumbing solution.

Quenneville said solutions can include anything from additional flushing to changing a fixture or applying a corrosion prevention coating to the plumbing system. The latter was employed at Hugh Beaton public school, where an initial standing-water exceedance last year of 10.8 ppb persisted even after flushing (10.2 ppb).

General Amherst had one standing water result of 17.4 ppb, while the highest lead level at a local school last year was 19.5 ppb at Sandwich West public school.

Riverside Secondary is just one of the area schools sporting warning signage over some water outlets, advising they’re only to be used for hand-washing, not drinking.

Varga said she and other parents at St. André were advised by the principal that board officials had assured her the water was safe using the current flushing procedures. Fields said the most recent testing at St. André over the summer showed the highest of four samples at 8.3 ppb in standing water at a location subsequently measuring “non-detectable” following flushing. The highest result after flushing out the pipe at a different location was 6.6 ppb, he said.

Fields said this year’s testing resulted in drinking fountains being “decommissioned and bagged” at two area Catholic public schools, Sacred Heart and St. Angela.

How does your kid’s school rate when it comes to lead in the water?

Fields said every school office in Ontario is required to keep a binder with up-to-date data showing the results of water tests analysed by an independent lab, available for anyone to check.

Even low levels of lead in the blood of children have been found to result in reductions in children’s IQ levels, along with causing behaviour and learning problems, hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia.

Washing hands, bathing or showering in water containing lead levels that exceed guidelines is not considered unsafe. Human skin does not absorb lead, which accumulates in the body when ingested.