Greater Victoria schools get lead out of water with new drinking fountains

The Greater Victoria school district has installed new water fountains and bottle fillers in all its schools in an effort to reduce student and staff exposure to lead in drinking water.

The district began removing older fountains in January and completed the project over the summer, installing 47 new fountains and 63 bottle fillers.

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“We’ve spent a lot of money on this project and it’s well worthwhile,” said Tom Ferris, vice-chairman of the school board. “I think it gives people a sense of confidence, so I’m very pleased about that.

“I know when I go to the gym I use the water fountains all the time and I look at them and I hope they’re as good as the ones in our schools.”

Health Canada says exposure to lead can cause behavioural problems and learning disabilities in children and has set 0.01 milligrams per litre (or 10 parts per billion) as the maximum acceptable concentration of lead in drinking water.

The Greater Victoria district has spent $850,000 installing 230 water fixtures and 40 prefiltration systems at its schools.

The total includes $200,000 that the district spent on filtration systems after testing in 2016 revealed higher than acceptable lead levels in the drinking water at some schools.

The filters helped, but testing last year still found elevated traces of lead at some schools, prompting further action.

“It’s student health and our teachers’ health as well,” Ferris said. “We had a lot of concerns from the community and really felt we had to address those concerns and make sure that everybody felt they were in a safe place.”

The money for the project comes from the district’s operating costs, an annual facilities grant and the B.C. government’s school enhancement program.

“We’re trying to get money from as many different places as possible because it’s a big number to come up [with] in any school district,” Ferris said.

The safety of school drinking water became a hot topic in 2016 after the Prince Rupert district notified parents and children about elevated lead levels at four schools.

The schools were built prior to 1989, when lead was commonly used in plumbing materials. The issue was believed to stem from water sitting overnight in contact with lead pipes or lead solder.

Other districts were soon reporting issues at their schools.

In September 2016, the B.C. government mandated that districts test school drinking water for lead and report the results annually to the Ministry of Education. Under the policy, districts must test the water at one-third of their schools each year.

The Greater Victoria district said it will resume testing this fall.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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