Field at Weston School to reopen next week after closing due to soil contamination concern

Students at Weston School should be able to use their playground again next week, the Winnipeg School Division says.

'We have been fully reassured by provincial health officers that the health risk of lead in soil is low': WSD

Students at Weston Elementary School should be allowed back onto the school's sports field next week after reports of lead contamination in the soil closed the field Thursday. (John Einerson / CBC News)

Students at Weston School should be able to use their playground again next week, the Winnipeg School Division says, after students were barred from using it due to concerns about soil contamination revealed in tests more than a decade ago.

A Winnipeg School Division spokesperson said Friday the field will reopen after additional sod is added to the field as a precautionary step.

"The fencing will be removed by mid-week next week as we have been fully reassured by provincial health officers that the health risk of lead in soil is low," Radean Carter, WSD's senior information officer, said in an email Friday.

A fence was put up around the sports field at the elementary school Thursday after the release of test results from 2007 that showed 19 of the 22 samples taken from the field contained levels of lead contamination that exceeded national guidelines for human health protection.

Those test results, however, were not publicly revealed at the time.

CBC News reported Thursday testing done on soil in parts of Point Douglas and several other Winnipeg neighbourhoods in 2007 and 2008 showed potentially dangerous levels of lead.

Reports never released

The results of the tests were detailed in a draft report dated July 2009 and a near-identical draft dated in 2011 that were obtained by CBC News. Neither draft report was ever publicly released by the then NDP government.

The acceptable level of lead in soil is 140 parts per million. The average contamination level of the soil in the tests done in 2007 at Weston School was 463 ppm. One sample had 1,130 ppm.

The elementary school is located just off of Logan Avenue and 280 metres south of a now-closed smelter site.

Parent reacts to closure of Weston School field on Thursday:

School officials have closed off the play areas at Weston Elementary school on Logan Avenue, after a CBC I-Team investigation revealed soil contamination there. 1:10

Carter said the decision to add soil to the field was made after the division conducted a site visit at the school Friday, along with a provincial health officer and the director of the province's Sustainable Development department.

Provincial health officials say the health risk from lead in the soil on the school grounds is low.

"Since concrete, wood chips or sod covers most of the school field, there are limited opportunities for exposure to lead in soil," a provincial spokesperson said in an email Friday.

"Public health reviews of data from other cities in Canada show that actual lead exposure from lead in soil (measured by blood lead levels) increased lead in the blood only slightly, and that soil exposure poses a very small health risk."

Health officials say children can avoid ingesting soil by washing their hands before snacks and lunch breaks.

Further testing done

Documents obtained by CBC through government sources reveal the 2007 and 2008 testing involved extensive soil testing by the provincial government around Point Douglas, Wolseley, Minto and South Osborne.

It's not clear why the NDP government never publicly released the reports at the time.

Testing done on soil in parts of Point Douglas and several other Winnipeg neighbourhoods more than 10 years ago showed potentially dangerous levels of lead — but residents were never told about the results because the NDP government at the time withheld the information, according to documents obtained by CBC News. 3:12

Of the samples taken in the Point Douglas area, 17 came back positive for lead contamination above acceptable levels. A further 10 residential sites in other areas of Winnipeg also exceeded Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, or CCME, guidelines for lead levels.

Wab Kinew, leader of the now Opposition Manitoba NDP, said Thursday there's no evidence that "political interference" led to the initial reports on the soil tests getting shelved.

Health Minister Cameron Friesen said the current Progressive Conservative government has committed to retesting of the areas listed in the report. That testing is expected to begin Sept. 24 and be completed by the end of October.


With files from Kristin Annable