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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: What's in your water bottle?

Water fountains in Hamilton Hall, pictured on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, are reported to have lead.

“That definitely explains why the midterm was so difficult,” my suitemate quipped.

He's referring to the weeks of exposure to a water fountain on Hamilton Hall’s fifth floor that recently tested for lead levels that were more than twenty times the EPA’s action level. The fountain is only one of the 22 fixtures in six buildings that tested for lead. 

While I chuckled at my suitemate’s wry take on a potentially dangerous situation, worrying about whether there is lead in your water isn’t very funny at all. The question of whether your water fountain is safe should not be another daily obstacle to college life. 

Dr. Jeffrey Griffiths, a former chairperson of the EPA Drinking Water Committee and a Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, puts it best when he says, “There is no safe level of lead in water.” 

Lead exposure, according to the EPA, can lead to adverse cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure, hypertension, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems in both adult men and women. While our society has made strides as a whole to get rid of lead in our gasoline and paint, corrosive lead pipes that are prevalent in old homes and buildings have remained. 

UNC is one of the oldest universities in the nation, so the administration should anticipate the potential harm aging infrastructure can cause and has an obligation to ensure the safety of its students. The corrosion of pipes presents a public health danger. Some of the lead levels of tested campus fixtures are much higher than those found in Flint, Mich., during the city's water crisis that started in 2014.

The University should be transparent with these findings and should deliver them to the student body as soon as possible. 

When water contamination is discovered, it should be immediately made publicly known, not just another message in an inbox of emails. It should not be limited to just occupants of the building – like incidences in Phillips, Manning, Hamilton, Fordham and South Building were. The University tried to sell the student body a belief that this is an isolated incident among a limited number of Wilson Library fixtures. Let’s create a transparency precedent.

Solutions to address our current decaying infrastructure at UNC do exist as well.

There are filtered water bottle refill stations attached to some water fountains around campus that remove lead and implicitly recognize the need for filtration. Unfortunately, the filtered systems are uncommon, exposing some buildings to risks and providing protection to others. In most buildings, cheaper unfiltered water bottle refill stations are more common and are almost identical in appearance to the filtered systems, providing a false sense of assurance to students. 

Having water that is free from causing adverse health effects should not be limited to those who have a certain class schedule or live in certain buildings; it should be equally available to all. There needs to be an expansion of water filtration and preventative measures to ensure this for UNC students.

Orange County and many parts of North Carolina face a larger contamination crisis beyond corrosive lead pipes. PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances, that are common in non-stick pans and stain-resistant clothes are being exposed to humans through our waterways, increasing the risk of cancers, infertility and weaker immune systems. Known as “forever chemicals”, they cannot easily broken down and are difficult to filter.

With the nuances of addressing lead exposure, let alone the developing issue of PFAS, the need for preventative and transparent approaches to addressing our decaying infrastructure is vital to ensuring the safety of our student body. 

With headache-inducing group projects in class and a worrisome defensive line on gameday, the daily drink of water should be the last worry in a UNC student’s day.


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