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The need to take action on lead exposure and lead poisoning in Winnipeg

On Wednesday November 4, I asked the Minister of Health what action he is taking with respect to lead exposure and lead poisoning of children in Winnipeg.   My questions and his answers are below.    You will note that I emphasize the need to screen children in areas like Point Douglas where there is evidence of high lead exposure. In the United States they have been doing such screening in areas of concern going back to the 1980s.  In 1991, the Centres for Disease Control in the United States put in their strategic plan that this was so important that every child should be screened.  In some states there is now universal screening of all children.   In some areas like New York and Chicago and Charlotte, North Carolina, screening has been going on for several decades.  We should not be several decades behind.  Our children should be screened and where blood lead levels are high they should be helped.  For more go to this link.

Hon. Jon Gerrard (River Heights): I just have 'til 4:30, so if we could move quickly, that would be appreciated.

      My first question deals with prevention, and prevention is key to preventing, for example, lead exposure. Intrinsik's report of last November predicted that the average blood lead level of children in Point Douglas to be 4.7 mcg per decilitre. At this average, there would be between two and four out of every 10 children in Point Douglas with toxic blood lead levels.

      Such toxic blood lead levels have been associated with learning and behavioural difficulties, with difficulties in school, with juvenile delinquency, with substance abuse, with mental illness, with homeless-ness and with crime. Government would do well to prevent these bad outcomes.

      Early identification of children with high lead levels can be achieved by screening children between ages one and three, and children identified early can be significantly helped.

      When will the government begin screening all children born in Point Douglas and in other areas of high lead exposure?

Mr. Friesen: I thank the member for the question.

      The member knows that this government has responded very significantly when it comes to the issues that the member is raising on concentrations of lead in soil in some Winnipeg neighbourhoods.

      If I reflect and review, I know this file came to my attention. It’s a shared responsibility between Health, Seniors and Active Living and also the Department of Conservation and Climate. We became aware of what could only be described as a cover-up by the former government when it came to disclosing to families, neighbourhoods, schools, community centres, the knowledge they had of elevated levels of lead in soil from a study that had taken place years ago.

      We became aware of even the fact that there had been resources designed, things like websites, public-facing activities to be able to let the public know and to disclose to them the, you know, what the level of concern should be. And then we also became aware that those resources were never deployed. They were never acted on. Instead, these things were swept under the rug, and that is why the former minister for Conservation and Climate in their role had ordered a review, new tests. We received a master report. The member will know that master report. We did tender an award of a contract for assessment in lead remediation activities at Weston School for the amount of almost a half a million dollars.

      We collaborated, of course, for additional materials to develop and implement handwashing toolkits, educational materials. We presented–we made presentations to parents and caregivers for the purposes of reducing lead exposure. We directed Conservation and Climate to establish a soil-monitoring program for Winnipeg neighbourhoods. I sat in on those same briefings to see what those additional levels were.

      I think that what we read in the master–the summary of the reports we got back is that there is no immediate risk, that the water is safe to drink. I remember sitting with the former acting chief provincial public health officer before our current Chief Provincial Public Health Officer took his role.

      And the former chief–I said, help me understand the relative danger in these neighbourhoods. I said, would you play in this playground with your children? And he said, without a doubt. I said, would you be safe to have your children be outside as the chief provincial public health officer? He said, without a doubt. And he talked to me about the kind of interaction with soil that would be necessary, how incredibly intense that would have to be. Essentially, you would have to ingest soil in order for it to be unsafe.

      So, we were, you know–obviously you want to acknowledge that people are fearful when they hear this. That's why we took action. That is why we took action with essential services and Conservation and Climate including, you know, a contract for $100,000 to scope business needs, to inform system data and  reporting requirements. We did mitigation remediation work to the specific recommendation in the report to which the member is referring. There are questions that are still outstanding about that key–or that specific recommendation. It wasn't a key recommendation but it talked about–the report talked about whether there would be value for a reporting and monitoring system.

      And we have been advised by officials that, while possible, they're not certain the value that this would add or how they would go about doing that. Nevertheless, I think we all agree that what is essential in all of this is that, you know, that there's good handwashing techniques in place, that we are eliminating ingestion, you know, by transfer, and that we are continuing to commit to education to raise awareness of common exposure routes and impact routine activities and ways to reduce exposure.

      So, there are no legislative changes that were required to implement the proposals we've done, but we have moved forward to implement the response to the recommendations, continuing to educate, respond to inquiries by people, and we continue to develop planning for the future to reduce lead emissions.

      We know that lead resides in soil for a long, long time. We know that there is less lead around than there was, but of course the member and I both understand that lead resides in soil and that degradation rate is slow, and that is why we took the exceptional measures as well of mitigating right at Weston School and some other places to make sure that there was an abundance of awareness of how we were acting.

Mr. Gerrard: I will just provide a summary comment and hand it back to the member for Union Station (MLA Asagwara).

      I thank the member, but he misses the main point, that is, that there are kids right now with toxic blood lead levels and they're not being detected and picked up and helped, and they need to be.

      So I now pass it back to the member for Union Station. 

Mr. Chairperson: The honourable member for Union Station–oh, the honourable member for–the honourable minister.  

Mr. Friesen:

Mr. Chair, can you advise if that's allowable under the rules that I am not allowed to respond–the opportunity to respond to the member's question?

Mr. Chairperson: Yes. You can respond if you want.

Mr. Friesen: The member for River Heights (Mr. Gerrard) makes the claim that this is the most important part of the study. We would agree that safety is essential, but it has not been the opinion of senior leadership that that is the–that the biomonitoring study is the most crucial part of this.

      We believe that education of the public is the most crucial part of this; that reassurance that it is safe to move around in their communities, it's safe to grow vegetables in gardens, that handwashing is important so as to not ingest materials.

      But there's also the complications around how such a study would take place. It is a lot of work to undertake for a benefit that has–that is questionable. You would–it would be like a very large and complex cohorting. You would have to have buy-in. We're not certain that all families would allow the children to participate. If there is a migration of individuals it would be very difficult to be able to track that.

      I wonder if the member would know of a third party who would take an interest into perhaps taking up this if it had some value otherwise, but we continue to receive the advice that the most important things to the departments' perspective–departments, plural–is that, you know, that education commitment and, of course, also these very significant investments that our government has been making in mitigation and those things.

      And I won't read them exhaustively, but those do include things like the mitigation-remediation at Weston School; the soil-monitoring programs that are going on in identified neighbourhoods; the drinking water subsidy at child-care centres, that's almost up to $1 million already; lead mitigation grants and data systems.

      I would also take–tell the member that I would encourage them to also take the conversation up with Minister for Conservation and Climate. She has also shared with me, though, a reminder that every family and their doctor can monitor levels of blood.

      So, anyone can do this through their own medical provider, they can take actions on medical advice if those levels are high. That's always been available to families through their family doctor, so there's no one who's prevented who has this concern from being able to come forward.

      I believe that the member of River Heights is well aware of this and I think it's irresponsible to suggest otherwise.


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