Manitoba·CBC Investigates

Unsafe lead levels remain at Weston School's sports field, gov't officials say winter minimizes risk

Test results obtained by CBC show that of the 21 samples taken at the elementary school, 17 of them came back above national safety limits, with an average concentration of 219 mg/kg in each sample.

Eighty per cent of samples taken from field came back at levels higher than national safety guidelines

Lead contamination of Weston School's sports field remains, according to new tests conducted by the government. (John Einarson/CBC)

New government soil tests have found Weston School's sports field remains contaminated with lead levels above national safety guidelines.

Test results obtained by the CBC show that of the 21 samples taken at the elementary school, 17 came back above national safety limits, with an average concentration of 219 mg/kg in each sample.

The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment sets 140 mg/kg  as the level deemed acceptable for human health. One sample was almost three times the limit set by the CCME. 

Public health officials say the results show a marked decline from previous tests and the risk to humans is minimized during the winter.

"With Manitoba's climate, soil is covered or frozen, meaning the risk of exposure to lead in soil is present for only part of the year," says a government news release sent on Thursday.

"At the current time, with the snow cover and frozen ground, the risk of exposure to lead in soil is negligible."

Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires said it is concerning that lead contamination persists more than three decades after the contamination in the field was first highlighted.

"We certainly are concerned with some of the new soil sample results that we are receiving," she said.

"We are going to be looking at several options as to what are our next steps."

Manitoba Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires says the contamination at Weston school will be a priority for the government. (CBC News)

Technical briefing on test results expected Thursday

More than 110 samples were taken across the city by the government, mimicking similar tests taken in 2007 and 2008. Those tests found high concentrations at the elementary school and parts of North Point Douglas, as well as several other parks and schools.

For reasons that remain unclear, the reports written about these tests in 2009 and in 2011 were never released.

New samples taken in Wolseley, Minto, Riverview and Lord Roberts came back within acceptable human health levels. One single sample in the Glenelm-Chalmers area exceeded the guideline, but only by one mg/kg. 

The lead could come from historic use of leaded gasoline, as many of the areas with high concentrations are in heavy traffic areas, public health officials said. Lead paint and lead in soil deposited from industrial sources could also contribute to the higher levels. 

The results of the tests will soon be online and a technical briefing is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday with Don Labossiere, Manitoba's director of sustainable development, and Lisa Richards, medical officer of health, to go over the full results and options the government is considering. 

The news release says staff from Public Health and Manitoba Sustainable Development will connect with the school divisions, the City of Winnipeg and the communities with increased levels of lead in the soil, and additional action may be taken before spring.

North Point Douglas

Samples taken in parts of North Point Douglas confirmed what CBC's independent testing uncovered earlier this week — parts of the area remain contaminated with lead.

Twenty-two test samples were taken along boulevards around Sutherland Avenue, Syndicate Street and Angus Street, and nine came back with unsafe levels of lead. The average concentration of lead was 176 mg/kg.

One sample taken at the southeast corner of Syndicate Street and Sutherland Avenue came back with levels over five times the limit at 755 mg/kg.

Another sample taken on Stephens Street, between Sutherland Avenue and the rail line, came back at 620 mg/kg.

There is residential housing within the entire sample area.

Samples of home gardens taken by CBC this fall in the same area revealed similar levels of lead concentration.

Squires said Weston School was told of the results of the latest tests on Wednesday.

Sports field closed

The elementary school is located just off of Logan Avenue and 280 metres south of a now-closed smelter site; 19 samples taken in 2007 came back with results that exceeded CCME guidelines.

Chart from a 2011 report that details lead level concentrations found in soil samples at Weston Elementary School. 140 ug/g (or parts per million) or higher is considered exceeding national safety guidelines for human health protection (Surface Soil Lead Levels in Winnipeg: 2007-2008)

In 1976 and 1979, elevated blood lead levels were found in some of the children attending Weston and Lord Nelson elementary schools in Winnipeg. 

Samples taken in 1981 had incredibly high levels, with the average concentration at 979 mg/kg.

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 sports field has been closed since September, after CBC News first reported of the high lead levels found in the 2007 tests.

Several playground and parks were also tested, including the Archibald Tot Lot and Spence Tot Lot, which had unsafe lead levels in 2007 tests. All came back within safety limits.

Squires said tackling the Weston levels will be a priority. An action plan is in currently being developed, she said.

"We have to take a look at what is happening in Weston as well as some key points in North Point Douglas that are certainly going to require further examination, analysis and action," she said.

Squires said there are a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to these high concentrations of lead. 

"Why are some areas being managed more effectively than some in situ than others? Why are some lead levels coming down as the years go by and why not others?" she said. 

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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