Manitoba·CBC Investigates

Winnipeg elementary school restricts access to field over lead contamination concerns

Students at Weston School will be taking their recess inside after learning through a CBC News report that high levels of lead contamination were discovered in the Winnipeg elementary school's sports field over a decade ago.

Winnipeg School Division only learned results of 2007 testing on Weston School's soil this week

Recess is on hold for students at Weston School as an investigation begins into lead contamination in its sports field. (John Einarson/CBC)

Students at Weston School have been barred from using their playground after CBC News reported that high levels of lead contamination were discovered in the Winnipeg elementary school's sports field more than a decade ago.

A fence was erected as a precaution around the sports field 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.

 A spokesperson from the Winnipeg School Division said officials from Manitoba's Sustainable Development department, including director Don Labossiere, will conduct a site visit Friday to determine if the field is safe for students to use.

The school division spokesperson confirmed Thursday that the division only learned about the 2007 soil test results this week.

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.

Parent outraged

Donnalynn Bousquet, who has an 11-year-old daughter at Weston and has sent six of her other children to the school, is outraged.

"I am pissed off," she said. "My youngest was born in 2007 … so all of those years she was in school, they knew about it and they put her life in danger, potentially.

"I think I might demand for her to have indoor recess until they figure out how to fix this."

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

The school division met with government officials from public health Thursday to develop a "full action plan" to deal with the possible contamination. They reassured the division that because of a layer of sod on top of the soil, the risk to children is very low. 

"The health risk of the lead that is found at Weston is extremely low, almost negligible," said Radean Carter, a Winnipeg School Division spokesperson.

"At the same time we are very grateful that the director of Sustainable Development is going to move quickly to get retesting done, especially at that site."

A chart from a 2011 report that details lead level concentrations found in soil samples at Weston School. A lead level of 140 parts per million or higher is considered to exceed national safety guidelines for human health protection. (Surface Soil Lead Levels in Winnipeg: 2007-2008)

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 the 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.

Elevated lead levels found in 1970s

A CBC News investigation revealed that 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.

Residents were never told about the results because the NDP government at the time withheld the information, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

They shouldn't be using it if they have concentrations [of lead] this high.- Soil science professor  Francis Zvomuya

This is not the first time that concerns about lead contamination at Weston School have been raised.

A report written in 1985 by the government's environmental management division looked at remediation efforts that were done in 1981 and 1983 to clean up the school. 

The clean-up efforts came after elevated lead levels were found in the blood of some of the children attending Weston and Lord Nelson elementary schools in 1976 and 1979.

The 1985 report said the division "intends to continue to monitor the levels of lead-in-air as well as in the new sod and soil in order to assess the potential for any health associated risk to the children attending Weston School."

Health risk low: officials

Following this week's CBC News report, public health officials moved to assure the public that the risk to health from lead in soils is low.

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

"However, lead exposures should be reduced as much as possible, and [this] is particularly important for children." 

People can minimize their exposure by avoiding eating soil and washing their hands after working with soil, the spokesperson said.

So far, no one seems to have any answers on this.- NDP Leader Wab Kinew

Francis Zvomuya, a professor of soil science at the University of Manitoba, says he is particularly concerned that the levels have increased since 1981 at several sites in the field.

He says there are a number of health issues that come with exposure to lead, including impaired neurological development and developmental delays in children, as well as learning difficulties.

If there has been no remediation done since the 2007 soil tests, Zvomuya says, children should not be using the field.

"They shouldn't be using it if they have concentrations [of lead] this high," he said.

A spokesperson for Sustainable Development says there was no further work done by the government following the test results.

No evidence of 'political interference': NDP leader

Wab Kinew, leader of the now Opposition Manitoba NDP, faced questions Thursday about why the initial reports on the soil tests were not released under the previous NDP government. 

He "has no insight about what was going on at the time," he said.

Kinew was first elected in the 2016 general provincial election, in which the Progressive Conservatives defeated the NDP government.

"Right now we haven't seen any evidence of political interference," he said, saying the choice not to release the material may have been a department decision rather than a political one.

"So far, no one seems to have any answers on this."

Kinew is calling on the government to commit to a human health risk assessment on residents in the areas the report says were affected. The assessment should look at whether their health was affected by exposure of elevated levels of lead, he said.

He also wants to see the Sustainable Development department create an annual report detailing where it plans to test each year. 

"It is awful that kids at Weston elementary school have to have recess inside today because they are worried about pollution," he said.

"Every kid in Manitoba should feel safe when they go to a park … and there should be zero political interference when it comes to releasing information about public health or about environmental issues."

Health Minister Cameron Friesen 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.

About the Author

Kristin Annable is a member of CBC's investigative unit based in Winnipeg. She can be reached at kristin.annable@cbc.ca

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