Students and staff at three schools under the Northwest Catholic District School Board started off the school year drinking out of water coolers after testing in August revealed slightly high levels of lead, which have since dropped through daily flushing.
In a report to the board Saturday morning, Superintendent of Business Chris Howarth said the all the board’s schools’ water was tested for lead as per the Ministry of Environment’s new regulations which came down in June (all schools had to be tested between June 15-Aug. 15).
Our Lady of the Way School in Stratton, Sacred Heart School in Sioux Lookout, and St. Joseph’s in Dryden all tested slightly over the maximum safe concentration of 10 micrograms per litre of water.
St. Francis here in Fort Frances “was close” (about seven micrograms).
During a second test before school started, however, Sacred Heart’s sample cleared up.
While all the board’s schools were instructed to begin a flushing program in June, Howarth noted this was problematic because custodians were on vacation during the summer.
That meant a consistent flushing program didn’t begin until August. As a result, some of the schools showed above-regulation lead levels in their water during testing following a period of little to no water use during the summer months.
Howarth said about 170-180 schools in Ontario were facing the same problem.
“It’s kind of a hiccup because they ended up testing like we did, before we had a regular flushing program going, so the water sits in the pipes for some time over the summer,” explained Howarth.
“If anything’s going to show up, that’s when it’s going to show up.
“But once you flush on a regular basis, the water’s not standing in the pipes for a long period of time,” added Howarth.
He also said there was conflicting information regarding the safe lead levels, as the Ministry of Health had told the board the exceedance levels was 30 micrograms per litre, not 10, for any student over the age of six.
The 10 microgram limit applied only to those under age six and pregnant women.
“There was a lot of confusion with this,” conceded Howarth. “We just erred on the side of caution.”
As a precaution, drinking water coolers were set up for the beginning of the school year at OLW, St. Joseph’s, and St. Francis. But these were removed from the schools, depending on when re-tests yielding better results were done.
The ones at St. Joseph’s and St. Francis were pulled last week, and part-way through the first week of school at Our Lady of the Way.
More recent water tests at all schools have shown lead levels to be under one microgram.
Howarth said every school flushes its system daily and keeps a log of such activity, as per ministry regulations.
“We know now, we’ve learned,” said trustee John Borst. “I’m pleased to know we’re in good shape.”
Education Director Mary-Catherine Kelly said that the ministry “has been good to work with,” and will be paying for the bottled water used at the schools at the beginning of the month.
She added the board had notified the respective school communities of the temporary water situation and the regular flushing program.
< *c>Summer facility work
In other news, Howarth noted the local Catholic board didn’t quite get all the summer projects done as it had hoped given the addition of a five-room portable at St. Joseph’s in Dryden took longer than expected.
St. Joseph’s also had its school floors replaced.
As well, some work was done to improve the playground at St. Joseph’s, with the support of parents there.
A new intercom was not installed and blackboards not replaced at St. Michael’s here, but this will be done during the school year with care taken not to disrupt classes, noted Howarth.
Our Lady of the Way in Stratton got new flooring in the hallway while Sacred Heart School in Sioux Lookout saw an additional portable classroom installed there.