Lead levels in Ontario elementary school water spiked, health ministry says

By Caitlin Froum and Abigail Cano, CNN

(CNN) — In September, investigators from Ontario’s public health agency cited a dangerous mixture of lead, arsenic and mercury in a litany of ailments stemming from one fifth of elementary schools in the province. An education ministry official insisted at the time that “students are not at risk.”

“These lead levels are a mystery,” the school district also said in a statement.

Public health officials confirmed months later that the source of the lead contamination was rare metals found in fixtures such as mercury, selenium and lead, which were released to the environment and then poured into the water in older or outdated water fountains in elementary schools.

Three children contracted potentially lethal levels of lead poisoning, Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care said in a statement Thursday, asking people to refrain from drinking water from fountains and hoses and to replace any faucets or hoses until further notice.

‘I can say definitively that there are no documented cases of human illness’

“We have concerns about the safety of drinking water on school property,” said Elina Mann, an assistant deputy minister in the ministry’s health and environmental program. “We are working with (the school district) to find a safe water source for students and staff.”

On Wednesday, Ontario’s Ministry of Education announced that 120 elementary schools in the city would undergo testing for lead levels from fixtures as part of a broader initiative to eliminate lead service lines, which carry the lead from water pipes to taps and were found in 80% of the city’s 2,200 schools.

The drinking water will be tested in at least 75% of the schools, according to the ministry.

At least 159 other schools in Ontario — or two out of three school buildings in the province — are contaminated with dangerous levels of selenium, which has also been linked to neurological issues, says a press release issued Thursday by the Environment Ministry. That release is attached to the ministry’s Health, Environment and Long-Term Care announcement.

In the report, Ontario’s public health agency issued an appeal to all school districts to test and remove lead service lines — potentially the source of the contamination — in water fixtures at all schools.

“At a minimum, lead service lines should be removed at all schools,” said Glenys Kinnane, director of medical officer of health in the coroner’s office. “If they have a service line system, they should have lead pipes removed.”

No childhood lead poisoning cases in Ontario

The accidental poisoning of schoolchildren, however, is rare. In 2017, not a single case of childhood lead poisoning was reported in Ontario schools, according to a report by Canada’s Environmental Commissioner. Two schools in the province were included in that audit.

Yet, there have been 101 cases of lead poisoning reported in Ontario schools over the past 10 years, most of them in elementary schools, the release said.

While it was not revealed how the lead found in the older fixtures ended up in the water, Kinnane said the natural sources for the metals tend to be from scrap metal mining and burn piles, especially in mining communities.

In addition to a lack of plans for the remediation of the contaminated water, she said the investigation found the school board did not act on information contained in the educational assurance log in 2016 that identified 15 highly dangerous mercury-based flame retardants in water fixtures.

“Given the seriousness of this issue, it is very difficult to trust the statement from the schools (that) children are not at risk,” Kinnane said.

High levels of lead, selenium, and other metals in drinking water can cause health issues, such as behavioral and learning disabilities. Research indicates that selenium poisoning can also damage the kidneys and other organs, including the reproductive system, breast and prostate glands.

As a result of testing in schools, children and teens will be subject to clinical evaluations to determine the appropriate level of selenium and mercury exposure in each child, the ministry said.

One policy analyst, who could not be named, said the revelations from Ontario should be a wake-up call for Americans.

“We tend to think that these issues only happen in places like Europe and North America,” said the policy analyst, a doctor who has researched health risks associated with lead poisoning. “This is something that we should be worried about here in North America, too.”

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