Off-campus water still may contain lead

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Is your drinking water safe? If you are living off-campus, it might not be.

Though lead-free water is now available in all campus buildings and residences, some off-campus buildings – including the houses and apartments many students call home – may still contain lead-contaminated water.

Lead levels in Providence have “risen slightly” in recent years, said Clay Commons, senior environmental scientist for the Rhode Island Department of Health.

After discovering in 2006 that some water samples had lead levels higher than federal limits, Commons said, his department began a process of changing the chemical composition of treated water to lessen pipe corrosion. The treatment will reduce lead levels in the long term, but contributes to the current higher levels, he said.

Though Commons said there is no direct evidence of lead contamination in off-campus buildings, he added that there is no clear evidence that all residences are safe from contamination.

The problem of lead contamination in campus buildings was brought to the University’s attention in 2007, when three undergraduates examined lead levels in campus buildings as part of a class project.

Libby Delucia ’09, Matthew Wheeler ’09 and Megan Whelan ’09 found high levels of lead-contaminated water in several University buildings, The Herald reported in 2007.

“Sampling lead in water is not required in most buildings, but after learning that two academic buildings tested above the (Environmental Protection Agency) action level, the University tested the water in all Brown buildings,” said Director of Environmental Health and Safety Stephen Morin. After collecting hundreds of samples and sending them to an independent laboratory for analysis, EHS discovered that 17 buildings exceeded the action level.

EHS alerted building occupants soon after receiving the results, Morin said. All buildings that exceeded the EPA’s action level were provided bottled water or water filters, he said, adding that these “initial steps” are “acceptable long-term solutions.”

Students living off-campus in University-owned housing are also safe from lead-contaminated water.

“All housing (has) been tested for lead levels,” said Gail Medbury, director of auxiliary housing. “Those with high levels of lead have been provided with a filter.”

But for those not living in University-owned housing, Morin said he recommends having running water sampled and using filters or drinking bottled water.

The only way to determine whether a household’s water is affected by higher than acceptable levels of lead is to send a sample to a qualified laboratory, which costs between $20 and $100, according to the EPA Web site.

Morin said individuals should take this step because “required sampling is limited and every building is different due to such factors as age of construction, type of water systems and type of solder used.”

He also suggested running cold water in the morning or after long periods of non-use to decrease the levels of lead in the water. “Only use cold water for drinking and cooking since hot water can have higher levels of lead.”

According to the EPA, lead found in water usually comes from the corrosion of pipes or solders in plumbing, with very new and very old plumbing systems at greatest risk of leaching lead.

The most common source of ingested or inhaled lead is paint and dust particles containing the metal, but lead in drinking water can contribute to an individual’s total exposure, according to the EPA. Lead remains in the body for a long period of time, and a significant buildup of the metal can cause acute and chronic health effects, including damage to the central nervous system, the liver and the kidneys.

Children are particularly vulnerable to over-exposure of lead, which can contribute to a range of physical and mental developmental delays.