UNC Officials May Be Closer to Solving Lead Issue

The University turned off water restrictions for the Campus Y in mid-May, using the 100-year-old building to host graduation celebrations after corrective measures to reduce unacceptable lead levels reach their final stages. The facility hosted a barbecue for the senior marshals, an open house for alumni, students and parents, and the building was open for visitors.

The Campus Y is one of four buildings, all newly constructed or renovated, where high lead levels were found. Water is still restricted in the Caudill Labs, Chapman Hall and the Information Technology Services building, where lead was found in late March and April.

Those buildings are taking longer to finish because of an extra step in the testing process. Preliminary test results in two samples from the water fountains in the Campus Y indicated lead levels of 0.015 mg/L and 0.098 mg/L. The Environmental Protection Agency requires public water systems to deliver education materials and take action to reduce the lead concentration at 0.015 mg/L. After flushing, the levels reached below the standard, said Carolyn Elfland ’69, associate vice chancellor for campus services.

The high lead levels were found to originate from brass in the faucet fixtures, after testing by a team under the leadership of Marc Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. Edwards is a water-corrosion expert recognized by Time magazine in 2004 as one of four global innovators in the study of water management.

“In general, it’s not unusual to see elevated levels in new buildings,” he said. “Right now it’s perfectly legal under the law because no one is required to measure it.”

Federal and state standards allow for 8 percent lead in brass, an alloy containing lead, copper and zinc, but some fixtures contain as little as 0.2 percent lead. In a letter dated May 10, Raymond Hackney, UNC interim director of environment, health and safety, wrote that the University is changing its specifications to require plumbing fixtures with no more than 0.2 percent lead in future construction.

“Everything looks according to code and done to the highest standards,” Edwards said. “In general, new buildings have lead leaching problems, and it just comes from brass.”

The remedy for the lead problem was to let the water run through the plumbing fixtures. Water helps form a protective coating on the fixtures over time, Edwards said. All four buildings were flushed. Each faucet and drinking fountain was tested in the Campus Y, as well as some direct connections leading into coffee pots.

The University also tested the water of buildings constructed in the past two years. Representative samples were taken from buildings in groups by age at six months, 12 months, 18 months and then at two years. Individuals in these buildings were notified by e-mail April 30 that there was no lead found in these buildings.

Officials became aware of water problems after faculty and students complained about the odor and taste of water in Caudill. Initial tests by the Orange Water and Sewer Authority alerted officials to the gravity of the problem, and subsequent University tests showed the presence of lead. Levels in Caudill and Chapman reached as high as six times the amount of lead considered dangerous for drinking water in initial tests.

Hackney told the University community that based on the information currently available, public health authorities believe that the levels of lead did not raise a concern for adults who have been drinking this water, particularly given the short time of exposure, and that they did not recommend testing for most adults.

As a precaution, Carolina 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.

Related coverage is available online:

Share via: