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The Daily Tar Heel

Detectable levels of lead found in drinking fountains of eight campus buildings

Banners fly on UNC's South Building on Oct. 11, 2021.

Update Sept. 27 at 4:25 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional information from UNC Media Relations as well as lead detection notifications and testing information from the Office of Environment, Health and Safety.

Lead has been detected in drinking fountains in eight campus buildings this month, according to emails sent to building occupants and further confirmed by a University spokesperson.

The affected buildings include Hamilton, Fordham, Manning, Phillips, Carrington and Issac M. Taylor Halls as well as South Building. An additional drinking fountain and several sinks in Wilson Library were also found to contain lead, adding to a previous announcement by the University on Sept. 1.

After the announcement on Sept. 1, additional testing was completed in Wilson Library and detectable levels of lead have now been found in four drinking fountains and 14 sinks.

One drinking fountain on Fordham Hall's third-floor yielded over 44 times the detectable lead threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency, requiring action to take place. In Hamilton Hall, a fifth-floor fountain had nearly 27 times the threshold for action, and in South Building, a fountain had 34 times that amount.

UNC has removed the fountains from service and posted signs instructing them not to be used. The fountains will eventually be replaced, the University said. 

In contrast to the previous campus-wide announcement sent on Sept. 1 regarding Wilson Library, letters about the subsequent lead detections were only sent to the occupants of the buildings. The letters were sent on Sept. 19 and Sept. 26 by the Office of Environment, Health and Safety. 

Lead in the water may be due to corrosion of lead plumbing materials within fountain and sink components, according to the letters.

"EHS is reviewing the University’s drinking fountain inventory for older model fountains that may contain lead components," a University spokesperson said. "Water fountains are being prioritized to test based on this criterion."

Water testing is taking place in a phased approach that will last "multiple weeks," according to a campus announcement on Sept. 27 from Environment, Health and Safety. 

The first phase will prioritize fixtures that may potentially contain lead components based on age and construction. Phase two will test water fixtures in buildings built in or prior to 1930. The last phase will test all buildings built in or prior to 1990.

During testing, fixtures are removed from service until results return. If traces of lead are discovered, fixtures will be removed from service completely and building occupants will be notified.

Powell Marshall, director of UNC Facilities Shared Services, said only "trace amounts" of lead had been discovered, according to emails obtained by The Daily Tar Heel sent to the occupants of Hamilton and Fordham Halls. 

However, many lead samples exceeded the threshold of 15 parts per billion (ppb) — the amount set by the EPA requiring water systems to take action. 

The University said it will take action for any measurable level of lead detected, according to the Sept. 26 notifications sent to the occupants of Carrington and Issac M. Taylor Halls.

Fordham Hall

On the third floor, a drinking fountain initially had non-detectable levels of lead. The second flushing resulted in a sample of 662 ppb, over 44 times the threshold.

Hamilton Hall

On the second floor, a drinking fountain contained 5.8 ppb on first flush and 34 ppb on the second.

On the fourth floor, a drinking fountain contained 2.8 ppb on first flush and 7.2 ppb on the second.

On the fifth floor, a drinking fountain contained 9.6 ppb on first flush and 402 ppb on the second, nearly 27 times the threshold's guidance.

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Manning Hall

A basement drinking fountain initially had lead levels of 4.5 ppb. The second test yielded no detectable levels.

Phillips Hall

A first-floor drinking fountain had 26.3 ppb initially, and after further testing resulted in 4.1 ppb of lead.

South Building

A basement drinking fountain detected 515 ppb of lead first, then resulted in 254 ppb. 

Wilson Library

In total, four drinking fountains and 14 sinks were found to have detectable levels of lead. Further testing was completed after the University announced on Sept. 1 that three water fountains had detectable levels of lead, including a second-floor fountain with 193 ppb. 

Carrington Hall

Eight drinking fountains were revealed to have detectable levels of lead: 

  • Ground floor (beside room L10): 6.44 ppb initially, then non-detectable
  • First-floor (across from room 104): 69.6 ppb initially, then 81.0 ppb
  • Second-floor (across from room 206A): 6.9 ppb initially, then non-detectable
  • Second-floor (across from room 254A): 7.51 ppb initially, then non-detectable
  • Third-floor (across from room 306): 44.6 ppb initially, then 36.7 ppb
  • Fourth-floor (across from room 411): 39.9 ppb initially, then 31.5 ppb
  • Fourth-floor (across from room 454A and elevators): 6.29 ppb initially, then 5.39 ppb
  • Fifth-floor (across from room 511): 10.6 ppb initially, then 7.89 ppb

Issac M. Taylor Hall

A fifth-floor drinking fountain near the women's restroom had 7.52 ppb of lead on first test and 5.17 ppb on the second.

A basement water cooler first came back with non-detectable levels of lead, but had  138 ppb on the second sample.

Testing and community updates

The University is offering lead testing for UNC faculty, staff and students who work or study in the affected buildings at no charge, according to a Sept. 27 campus announcement.

After consultation with campus medical providers, lead level blood testing will be provided based on suspected exposure and health conditions, such as pregnancy and communicated symptoms.

Students with concerns can contact Campus Health at 919-966-2281, with appointments generally available within one to two days. Employees can contact the University Employee Occupational Health Clinic at 919-966-9119, with appointments available within two to three days.

Blood tests will be sent to LabCorp and results should be communicated within two to three days.

Visitors or other Chapel Hill residents are advised to contact their health care providers.

As of Sept. 21, the University was working on a system for lead testing, but was only prioritizing testing for pregnant or breastfeeding adults.

The University has also created a page on the Environmental, Health and Safety website that focuses on campus drinking water, the safety status of the water and community updates.