Decades Long Secret of Lead Contaminated Soil in Winnipeg

As reported by the CBC, testing performed on soil in 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  government at the time withheld the information, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

Documents obtained by CBC through government sources reveal an extensive round of soil testing was conducted by the provincial government in 2007 and 2008 around Point Douglas, Wolseley, Minto and South Osborne.

Residential boulevards were targeted, as were playgrounds, schools and sports fields.

Two draft reports written 

At least two draft reports detailing the results were written in 2009 and 2011, as well as a draft news release and technical report. For reasons that remain unclear, the government never publicly released the reports.

Of the samples taken in the Point Douglas area, 17 came back positive for lead contamination above acceptable levels and 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.

Excerpt from the 2011 Report

A chart taken from a 2011 report that details lead levels found in residential boulevards in Point Douglas. A result of 140 ug/g — micrograms per gram, or parts per million — or higher exceeds national safety guidelines for human health protection. (Surface Soil Lead Levels in Winnipeg: 2007-2008)

The acceptable level is 140 parts per million. One result showed 2,240 ppm on Angus Street near Sutherland Avenue in Point Douglas.

According to the report, the possible causes of contamination in the city are historic use of leaded gas, a number of now-shuttered lead smelters, scrap recycling yards, the railyards and metal manufacturing operations.

At the sports field for Weston School — an elementary school located just off of Logan Avenue and 280 metres south of a now-closed smelter site — 19 soil samples came back with results that exceeded CCME guidelines.

Government officials could find no record of the Winnipeg School Division being told about the results or evidence that the sports field had been remediated.

A spokesperson for the province’s Sustainable Development department confirmed the documents were never publicly released by the previous government. He said residents and the school divisions were not informed of the results, according to people still working in the department.

He also said no soil remediation was done in response to the results of the report.

The Archibald Tot Lot, Hespeler Park, Maryland Park, Spence Tot Lot and Lord Nelson elementary school all had a least one sample showing unsafe levels of lead.

Locations of high lead contamination in the soil in Winnipeg Neigbourhoods

Children shouldn’t play in sports field: Professor

Francis Zvomuya, a professor of soil science at the University of Manitoba, wasn’t surprised by the test results but said some of the numbers were particularly alarming, including the high levels in Weston and in Point Douglas.

In the case of Weston School, the lead levels had increased since the 1980s, when the first round of tests were completed. Zvomuya said if no attempts were made to clean up the area in the past 10 years, children should not be playing there.

“The case that is particularly glaring is Weston elementary. When you look at the concentrations at the majority of sites [tested] … out of the 22 they looked at, only two sites were not contaminated,” he said.

“That is concerning when you look at the concentrations.”

He said 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.

Health Canada says even very small amounts of lead in the bloodstream can have harmful health effects and children are especially at risk.

Lead can affect their brain development, behaviour, blood and kidneys. Severe cases of lead poisoning are rare in Canada but can cause vomiting, diarrhea or convulsions.

Children are at risk of ingesting lead if they play in contaminated soil and put their hands in their mouth. Ongoing exposure puts people at higher risk of developing health complications.

“Every time you have a site that is frequented by kids or where kids spend a reasonable amount of time playing, then there is a concern — because then there is a risk of exposure to the contaminants,” Zvomuya said.

New testing in Point Douglas area

A senior official with the current government said that new testing of soil in the Point Douglas will be completed by the end of October.  A report on the results will be completed by December  2018 and publicly released.

Zvomuya was in charge of the soil tests that occurred last year in St. Boniface and will lead the new tests the government has ordered for the Point Douglas area.

The best way to clean up the contaminated soil is to bring in new soil to these areas, he said. He said the clean-up should be concentrated in the areas most frequented by children

“If you have a site where our kids play and where humans spend a lot of hours working or playing or doing recreational activities … then they have to be remediated,” he said.

“It may be expensive but that is the only way we can have people doing activities without facing the risk of lead poisoning.”