In recent weeks, the University has found detectable levels of lead in the drinking fountains and sinks of eight UNC buildings — including Fordham, Hamilton, Manning, Phillips, Carrington and Isaac M. Taylor Halls, along with South Building and Wilson Library.
While the University is testing fixtures in other campus buildings through a phased approach, the process is expected to last several weeks, according to UNC's Environment, Health and Safety department.
“There is no safe level of lead exposure,” said Elizabeth Kamai, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Southern California who has previously studied children's lead exposure in North Carolina. “So, any measurable lead is not good. I would be concerned about any level of lead in the water.”
University lead testing was initially triggered when a project involving a UNC professor found detectable levels of lead in Wilson Library, according to a University spokesperson. EHS then began conducting its own lead testing in the library and other buildings.
Kamai said that there is disbelief among people that lead is not an issue anymore, aside from isolated incidents like in Flint, Mich. But, she said that’s just not the case.
“If you don't test for lead, you're not going to find it,” Kamai said.
No federal or state regulations require universities to test for lead in drinking water sources, according to the EHS website.
UNC testing has found that samples in seven out of the eight buildings exceeded the threshold of 15 parts per billion (ppb) — the amount set by the EPA requiring water systems to take action.
"It is very high and definitely it's good that the University is testing these faucets and ought to work on finding the source of lead," said Jacqueline Gibson, the head of the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering at N.C. State University.
Gibson studies the intersection of water quality and human health.
"Lead is really the biggest concern for children aged six and under because it's a neurotoxin that really interferes with development of the brain," Gibson said. "Once you're in college, your circuits are pretty well developed. Ideally, you still aren't exposed to a lot of lead but you're beyond the riskiest phase."
For short-term occasional exposure, she said it is unlikely for individuals to get sick. Gibsons said she would worry only if one were to drink from water with high levels of lead all the time.
However, low amounts of lead exposure could have larger population-level effects over time such as poor cognitive outcomes, developmental delays and behavioral problems, Kamai said.
Blood lead testing
Lindsay Ayling, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History, said she got tested for lead following delays and community confusion in the individual testing process. The University initially only prioritized blood testing for pregnant or breastfeeding adults.
“I hadn't drank from the fountains at least since March 2020,” Ayling said. “But they told me I probably should still get tested because lead can remain in your body for a long time.”
Ayling has yet to hear back about her results.
“Blood lead is a measure of lead exposure in the past month or so; it's just circulating levels,” Kamai said. “The vast majority of lead in a person's body is stored in their bones, so a lead test may or may not tell you anything useful.”
According to EHS, there is no specific treatment for elevated levels of lead, but a medical provider may recommend treatment for specific symptoms, if they are present.
The Orange Water and Sewer Authority provides water for the Chapel Hill community, which includes the University. The organization said in a press release that lead is not present in drinking water throughout the community.
"OWASA will continue supporting UNC in their efforts to remediate these locations where lead was detected," the press release said.
Testing is completed for drinking water when it leaves OWASA's treatment plant, and the authority said samples have tested below 3 ppb for over 20 years.
A University spokesperson said that fixtures that do not show detectable levels of lead in testing — but share similar physical components with structures that contain detected lead — will be replaced as well.
Individual departments will not be charged for the fixture replacements if the fixture is determined to be the cause of detectable lead.
“You've got a lot of old plumbing on the UNC campus, and so, it's possible that even with OWASA’s efforts to control the corrosivity of the water, some of the plumbing is just so old, that it's an impossible challenge really," Gibson said.
Alternative water sources
Mark Crescenzi is the chairperson of the department of political science, which is housed in Hamilton Hall — where three drinking fountains were found to have detectable levels of lead. He said in a statement that his department is providing bottled water for students, faculty and staff.
“While many can go to another building for water access, we know that isn’t the case for everyone,” he said in an email statement. “The bottles are available to anyone who needs them and can be found in our main office.”
Crescenzi said staff, faculty and graduate students have all purchased water using personal funds, along with some departmental money.
“It is worth noting that our graduate students, who are terribly underpaid, were some of the first to chip in, and that our staff stepped in right away because they care so much about this community,” he said.
Kamai said the individuals who would be most exposed are those that work in the affected buildings for many years.
The University said standalone water dispensers are being distributed to selected buildings with drinking fountains that have been removed from service.
In a message to students of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, Dean Raul Reis said water dispensers are also being installed on each floor of Carroll Hall for students, faculty and staff use since the building has yet to be tested for lead.
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