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'Sweeping some things under the rug': 64 UNC buildings still have lead in fixtures

A water fountain in the basement of Manning Hall remains "Out of Order" on Sept. 21, 2022, following the announcment of lead detection in UNC water.

There are currently 64 University buildings with water fixtures that have yet to be remediated or replaced due to lead contamination, according to the testing webpage by UNC Environment, Health and Safety. 

The fixture with the highest detected amount of lead is located on the eighth floor of the Brinkhous-Bullitt Building — home to Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. The water fountain was measured at 1,100 parts per billion of lead on Nov. 15, 2022 and has since been taped off. 

Within the last year, detectable levels of lead were discovered in at least one fixture of 125 buildings on UNC’s campus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that immediate corrective action must be taken on water fixtures at or above 15 ppb. The N.C. General Assembly passed a law lowering the standard to 10 ppb for drinking water consumed by children in 2021, but the CDC said the maximum contaminant level goal is zero. 

Current affected campus fixtures include bottle fillers, drinking fountains, ice makers, sinks, water dispensers and other water filler systems.

Methods for removing lead in water include reverse osmosis, distillation and activated carbon filtration, which are used on fixtures with lower ratios of lead. Many fixtures have been fully replaced with new plumbing systems or placed as out of service. 

UNC Media Relations said in an email statement that remediation for the Brinkhous-Bullitt Building will take longer because there is already a separate project in place to replace a section of piping in the building unrelated to the lead issue.  

"The separate piping project in Brinkhous-Bulitt will replace outgoing wastewater piping," Media Relations said. "The water fountain drain line connects to this piping, so the fixture cannot be replaced until the pipe replacement project is completed."

Though the use of lead pipes was banned in 1986 by the federal government, lead was found in four newly constructed or renovated buildings in 2007 at UNC due to corrosion of brass fittings. Brinkhous-Bullitt's supply piping is made of copper, and the water piping that will be replaced is cast iron, Media Relations said. 

"We will not be able to determine the specific source of lead in this instance until we remove and examine the water fountain," Media Relations said.

Junior Anuragh Sriram is a biology and neuroscience major working as a research assistant in the Neurosciences Research Building – a location that saw two fixtures with detectable levels of lead in February. 

He said he wishes there was more urgency to replace and remediate fixtures around campus, not just the central ones. 

Junior Stevie Levite has a class in Hanes Art Center – one of the buildings with contaminated fixtures. She questioned why some construction projects have been prioritized over lead remediation. 

As of Aug. 14,  UNC's deferred maintenance backlog remains at $1.1 billion, with $82 million of those costs directed toward plumbing.

Levite said delaying remediation is jeopardizing the health of students, faculty and staff.

Research done by the Education Law Center in Flint, Mich. showed that children with high levels of exposure to lead were found to have significantly lower test scores and higher dropout rates. 

Lead poses a risk to the brain and kidney health of those who ingest it, Sriram said.

“Being able to feel various things, being able to respond to various stimuli — that ability of yours is going to be diminished with lead, but also your ability to learn new things,” he said. 

He said lead is not easily biodegradable, and natural systems cannot quickly remove the ion. 

Both Sriram and Levite called for greater transparency from the University on the continued severity of the contamination. 

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“I think if they're not going to take care of something, they may need to make the public aware of it, because it seems like they might be sweeping some things under the rug and prioritizing some things over others,” Levite said. 

“The real issue is, it's great that the problem was identified, but how long has this lead been there?” Sriram said.


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