04/27/2012 01:26 EDT | Updated 06/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Bottled water given to students at 24 New Brunswick schools after lead found

FREDERICTON - Nearly 11,000 students in the New Brunswick city of Saint John are being given bottled water after elevated levels of lead were found at their school water fountains, the province's education minister said Friday.

Jody Carr said the lead was found at 30 of the 34 elementary, middle and high schools in the port city during testing earlier this month. Of the 30, 24 of those schools are distributing bottled water while the other six have shut off the drinking fountains where the metal was found.

"While they're above Health Canada guidelines, they're not at a level that would cause immediate risk to students and to staff," Carr said in Fredericton.

The maximum acceptable concentration of lead in drinking water is 10 micrograms per litre, Health Canada says.

Dr. Scott Giffin, the district medical officer of health for the area, said the lead levels found at the 30 schools exceeded that, but he too stressed they are not high enough to cause health problems.

"The level is based on someone who consumes the water everyday for a long, long time, in which case, no students would qualify for those standards," Giffin said.

Copper levels that exceeded Health Canada limits were also found at some schools, but Giffin said that wasn't as much of a concern as lead.

"Contrary to lead, copper is necessary in the body to carry on some functions," he said.

He said the problem has emanated from pipes in the schools or within the water fountains themselves, adding that there is no issue with the city's water supply.

Giffin said when a second water sample was taken at each fountain where the lead was found, the levels of the metal dropped after running the water for 30 seconds.

Letters have been sent to parents of students at the affected schools, and the Education Department has posted results on its website.

This is not the first time elevated levels of lead have been found in drinking water at schools in New Brunswick. Carr said abnormal levels of lead have been found in 10 of the province's school districts so far.

Giffin said he believes the problem may be more evident in Saint John because of the age of the schools in the area. For instance, Saint John High School — one of the schools where elevated lead levels were found — was built in 1932.

"Water fountains in those schools may have been put in when the schools were built and are still being used," he said.

Carr said the problems will be corrected as soon as possible, but he could not say how long that would take. He said the repairs could involve replacing water fountain filters, the water fountains themselves or deeper infrastructure fixes within the schools.

Department officials estimate it will cost $40,000 per month to provide the bottled water in the Saint John area alone.

Liberal education critic Hedard Albert said the Opposition will be monitoring the government's response to the issue.

Testing of water at the drinking fountains of schools across the province began last fall after similar tests showed elevated lead levels at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.