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Lead Causes Water Shutoff in Four Campus Buildings

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Three new campus buildings and another where renovations recently were completed have been found to have water with unacceptable levels of lead. The buildings are Caudill and Chapman halls, the first two in UNC’s new science complex; the new Information Technology Services building, which houses the campus computer network headquarters; and the 100-year-old Campus Y. Occupants were told on various dates in April to stop drinking the water.

Caudill and Chapman opened last fall, and ITS opened this spring. Testing to date indicates that the just-opened FedEx Global Education Center is not affected.

Fourteen samples taken from the main water service line into Chapman and Caudill had six times the amount of lead considered dangerous for drinking water.

The problem came to light when students and faculty in Caudill and Chapman remarked on the unpleasant odor and taste of the water.

Unable to determine the source of the lead, the University turned to Marc Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, to lead what is turning into a campuswide investigation of contaminated drinking water, particularly in new buildings with brass piping. “The problem is coming from leaded brass,” Edwards said.

Edwards, a water-corrosion expert who was recognized by Time magazine in 2004 as one of four global innovators in the study of water management, said the University has been mailing, driving and hand-delivering more than 100 samples of the suspicious water and pipe components to Virginia Tech to be analyzed by his colleagues.

“That shows the degree of urgency and seriousness that they are treating this with,” Edwards said. “We stayed up all night getting the samples analyzed in the earlier stages. The commercial labs at UNC couldn’t turn the samples over quick enough, so they came to us. The problem appears to be well-defined. But we haven’t drawn any conclusions yet.”

Edwards said he soon will be receiving piping samples from the city of Chapel Hill as well. Samples from the city are just as important because city water – while it may not be corrosive by conventional means – has the ability to leach lead with newer plumbing devices.

“As a result of that conversation, we are taking some more samples,” said Raymond Hackney, interim director of environment, health and safety at UNC. “It may take some time for this to be resolved.”

In a memo to faculty, staff and students dated April 27, Hackney wrote: “It’s important to know that we are erring on the side of safety. The test results in two water samples in the Campus Y water fountains indicated lead levels of 0.015 mg/L and 0.098 mg/L. For references purposes, 0.015 mg/L is the level at which the Environmental Protection Agency requires public water systems to deliver education materials and to take action to reduce the concentration of lead in the water. The level is based on what an infant could ingest at 1 liter per day without causing elevated blood lead levels. It would take much higher lead levels in water to cause elevated blood lead levels in most adults.”

The memo also read, “Based on the information currently available, public health authorities believe that the levels of lead found to date, on average, do not raise a concern for adults who have been drinking this water, particularly given the short time of exposure. They do not recommend testing at this time for most adults.”

As a precaution, UNC has offered testing free of charge to expectant mothers, those who are breastfeeding and children under age 6 who drank significant amounts of water in the four buildings.

“We’re working with [Edwards] on a sampling strategy for the entire campus, starting with newer buildings,” Hackney said. “We’ll see what we have going back to two years.”

Edwards said that to resolve the issue, the University’s options include suspending the water systems in buildings showing elevated levels of contamination for an extended time, replacing the plumbing or completely flushing the system.

The last time UNC tested its drinking water was 10 to 15 years ago, Hackney said. Only a few water fountains were tested as a precautionary measure, he said.

“There is no government regulation with lead-leaching new buildings,” Edwards said. “It’s falling through the cracks in new buildings across the country. The EPA is only focusing on old homes. This is a clear regulatory gap.”


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