Lead-contaminated water found in campus buildings

By
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Correction appended.

Several University buildings, including the applied math building and Meiklejohn House, were found to have high levels of lead-contaminated water, according to a study conducted by a group of Brown undergraduates last spring.

Environmental science students Libby Delucia ’09, Matthew Wheeler ’09 and Megan Whelan ’09 set out to compare lead levels in drinking water in some of the oldest and newest buildings on campus, and they were alarmed by what they found.

“I don’t think we ever expected to find something like this,” Delucia said.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the acceptable amount of lead in water is 15 parts per billion. In some of the oldest buildings on campus, the students found lead levels reaching 150 parts per billion – more than 10 times the federal limit.

“It’s just really surprising that Brown wouldn’t have done anything about this or have told their employees sooner,” Whelan said.

The students who conducted the study sent their report and a copy of the raw data to Stephen Morin, director of environmental health and safety.

“I think we’re going to take this opportunity to look into it further, and if there’s a need, we will make recommendations on how to fix the problem,” Morin told The Herald. Morin said he wasn’t surprised that the students found high levels of lead in the water, and that flushing the water for some time helped to decrease those numbers.

The students conducted the study as part of ENVS 0490: “Environmental Science in a Changing World,” a spring semester course taught by Steven Hamburg, associate professor of environmental sciences. The students’ initial assignment was to look at the influence of heavy metals on the environment, and the group decided to focus their efforts on College Hill. The students took water samples from taps on the highest and lowest floors of some of Brown’s oldest and newest buildings and compared the amount of lead found in drinking water from each.

Meiklejohn House and the applied math building are two of the oldest non-renovated buildings on campus, and levels of lead found in some water samples from these buildings greatly exceeded the federal limit. The level of lead found in the applied math building reached as high as 15 parts per million, the highest recorded by the students.

Newer buildings, such as the Sidney E. Frank Hall for Life Sciences and the Watson Institute for International Studies, had lead levels of practically zero.

By taking water from the tap at 10-, 15- and 30-second intervals, the students found that levels of lead in water were greatly reduced as time increased. The students all agreed that running the tap first thing in the morning can significantly decrease the levels of lead found in the water.

“The main conclusion that we drew is that even in the new buildings, running the water for at least 10 seconds can really help. I always run the water for a while now,” Wheeler said.

Morin said that running the tap for at least 30 seconds, especially in the morning, “is a good habit.”

Of course, doing so wastes water, which the students acknowledge is another environmental issue.

“Do you train everyone to just not drink that first pulse of water, or do you actually fix the problem?” Hamburg said.

According to Delucia, “testing water is really simple – it just teaches us that for issues of environmental health, just do the most obvious thing.”

Lead in drinking water can lead to a variety of adverse health effects, including physical and mental development problems in children. Adults who have been drinking lead-contaminated water for many years have been found to have high blood pressure and kidney problems.

The greatest exposure to lead often comes from swallowing or breathing in paint chips and dust containing the metal. Lead in drinking water is usually due to the corrosion of plumbing materials made of lead in homes.

“Homes built before the 1970s are likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder,” Hamburg said. In the past, student projects for the environmental sciences course found that Hamburg’s own home contained lead pipes and solder, prompting him to replace the pipes and renovate his home.

William Yandik GS, a teaching assistant for the course, was surprised the students found such significant variance. He said there was an unequal distribution of where buildings with high levels of contaminated water were located, noting that some buildings were “hot spots.”

After the students collected the data and analyzed the numbers, their work was reviewed with the help of Environmental Science and Technical Manager David Murray.

“We’re really confident that the numbers the students get are real,” Hamburg said.

Both Yandik and Hamburg agreed that the results from the student-initiated projects often prompt changes in instructors’ behavior.

“I bought a Brita because of this course,” Yandik said.

Faculty members who work in the buildings that were found to have high lead levels had mixed reactions about what the students found.

“I’m not surprised, but it doesn’t make me particularly happy either,” said Govind Menon, assistant professor of applied mathematics.

Kevin Leder, a graduate student in the department, said he used to drink tap water but since hearing that the building’s pipes may be leaching lead, he has switched to bottled water.

Currently, there is no standardized schedule for checking the lead levels of water in University buildings, Morin said. Dorms were not included in the students’ initial study, but Morin told The Herald he may pursue testing those buildings as well.

Morin has discussed the issue with Facilities Management as a result of the students’ report, saying that “the report prompts education, and it’s definitely something that we’ll be looking into.”

In an article in Monday’s Herald (“Lead-contaminated water found in campus buildings,” Oct. 1), it was reported that 10 times the federal limit for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per million. In fact, it is 150 parts per billion.