The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Friday, Sept. 22, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

'A big warning sign': UNC discovers lead in drinking water fixtures of 125 buildings

Lead Testing Results of UNC Buildings and Identified Contaminated Fixtures as of January 2023

Detectable levels of lead have now been discovered in at least one fixture of 125 buildings on UNC’s campus.

Memorial Hall and the Kenan Center recently joined 25 other buildings in having samples exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold of 15 parts per billion that require water systems to take action.

Drinking fountains in the Brinkhous-Bullitt Building, which houses UNC’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, have tested among the highest concentrations of lead on campus, with one sample detecting 1100 ppb — over 73 times higher than the EPA threshold. 

Dozens of buildings with samples below the threshold have experienced lead in sink water, such as at recently tested Boshamer Stadium, Davis Library and the Chancellor’s Residence.

A University spokesperson said the testing of buildings constructed before 1990 concluded at the end of 2022 and will now move to phase four of the project, which includes testing of all remaining drinking fixtures on campus. Testing is expected to finish by the end of the spring semester.

According to financial disclosures obtained by The Daily Tar Heel, UNC is paying upwards of $666,800 to an outside contractor to conduct water sample testing. EHS employees and student volunteers are also contributing to the testing.

If lead is detected in any water fixture, the University said it will be immediately placed out of service and repaired or replaced.

“The remediation of drinking fixtures that tested positive for lead is an ongoing project that is currently underway,” UNC Media Relations said. “The University is remediating these drinking fixtures as quickly and efficiently as it can.”

UNC is continuing to offer blood lead level testing to students, faculty and staff who live, work or study in an affected building. Over 100 individuals have used the service, and none have received results exceeding the CDC’s reference range.

Students and post-doctoral fellows with concerns can contact Campus Health. Faculty and staff can contact the University Employee Occupational Health Clinic.

Elizabeth Kamai is an environmental epidemiologist, and a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Southern California, who has previously studied children's lead exposure in North Carolina. 

She said she was shocked to learn about there being over 120 buildings with detectable levels of lead at UNC, where she obtained her master's and doctoral degrees. 

Lead exposure can affect individual bodily systems in different, but small, ways, she said.

“It could mean that you have a little higher blood pressure a little earlier in life than you would have, or you might have some neurological symptoms,” Kamai said. “But again, these like really noticeable clinically diagnosable symptoms are generally from really high levels of lead exposure from what’s considered more of lead poisoning, rather than just these lower levels of lead exposure.”

She said the lead at UNC could have more population-level studiable effects, such as the total number of people with slightly higher blood pressure or kidney function problems. 

The use of lead pipes was banned in 1986, but in 2007, lead was found in four newly constructed or renovated buildings at UNC due to corrosion of brass fittings.

“I think this should be a big warning sign for lead exposure in water, generally, that even when the big public water systems are doing a really good job and don't have lead in them, there are other sources of exposure in buildings that are newer than we would have expected,” Kamai said.

However, she said it was “really surprising” that buildings from the 1980s and '90s would still have lead. 

The Tate-Turner-Kuralt Building, which houses the School of Social Work, was constructed in 1995 and had two fixtures with detectable levels of lead over 31 pbb. 

“UNC is trying to follow the evidence, and they've found lead in less old buildings," Kamai said. "So they're going to test all of the buildings like that. I think that's a really smart decision and potentially politically unpopular." 

She said the lack of context, such as the ability to compare to many other universities or public facilities, comes from the lack of widespread lead testing across the country.

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

In November 2022, North Carolina Central University began testing their campus water fixtures for lead in buildings constructed prior to 1989. Samples in six buildings returned with levels above NCCU’s own action level of 10 ppb. 

Mary Jean Brown is an adjunct faculty member at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the former chief of the Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I'm against any lead absorption," she said. "But it has to be substantial for it to get blood lead levels that are seriously impacting health on the individual level."

Out of an abundance of caution, Brown said young children and anyone that is pregnant or thinking about being pregnant should get a blood lead test simply because of how it can still be found in paint, soil and water across the country — and how impactful exposure can be to a fetus and kids.

She said that discovering lead in drinking water specifically is a common occurrence in older buildings -- not just in universities but also other public buildings like city halls or government offices.

The most important thing, she said, is for individuals to be aware of different ways one can be exposed to lead and to get a blood lead test if necessary.

"I hope nobody's losing sleep over this," she said.