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University News

Lead levels rise in aging Providence buildings

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, October 8, 2012

Providence has seen an elevation in lead levels in the water of some old buildings in recent years, including those on and around the University’s campus.
Many houses on College Hill are more than 100 years old. This means that some properties have pipes that are either made entirely of lead, or, more commonly, soldered with lead, said Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund and adjunct associate professor of environmental studies.
Facilities Management tested every occupied building on campus in 2008 in a comprehensive survey of the lead content of the water, said Stephen Morin, director of environmental health and safety. Since then, testing has only been done when a change is noticed in a building’s conditions or following property acquisitions by the University, he said. For example, water fountains were replaced and subsequently retested in the Steinert building when it was thought that the building’s water fountains were the source of the lead.
“In all old houses, it’s an issue,” Hamburg said, also noting the prevalence of lead paint associated with windows in some old buildings. As the campus undergoes renovations, this paint is removed, Morin said.
“Lead paint is something that’s ubiquitous, it’s about good maintenance,” Hamburg said.
When renovating University facilities, it is often assumed that paint is lead-based even without supporting testing, said Stephen Maiorisi, vice president of Facilities Management.
But testing is also carried out by a third party, Morin said. “Lead paint is something we manage regularly,” he added.
“Brown is always very proactive,” said Gail Medbury, director of auxiliary housing. She administrates 74-80 Benevolent St., a building with lead in the water. Morin also cited 50 John St. and 37 Cook St. as two buildings with particularly high lead levels, according to the initial study.
As the University undergoes renovations, administrators are examining the possibility of structural changes to eliminate lead problems entirely, Maiorisi said. But much of the problem is the result of city-owned supply systems under the jurisdiction of Providence Water – which owns the city’s water supply pipes – and is therefore out of University control, Maiorisi said.
The Environmental Protection Agency requires Providence Water to replace around 7 percent of the city’s lead pipes, said David Nickerson, communications manager for Providence Water. But EPA tests have revealed a correlation between partial pipe replacements – which do not involve a total overhaul of the underground connections – and “temporary elevations” in lead, most likely due to the turbulence of construction, Nickerson said. For this reason, the Providence Department of Health has suspended the partial replacement program pending further EPA testing, in which the department is also participating, Nickerson said.
Since April, Providence Water has raised the pH of the water to initiate a reaction that minimizes lead corrosion. When water interacts with build-up inside of old pipes, it results in “increased or decreased leaching” of lead into the water, Nickerson said.
Carbon dioxide is injected to precipitate a phosphate that coats the lead interior of old pipes, said Peter Hanney, interim public information officer for the Rhode Island Department of Health. As a result, the lead is not exposed.
Hanney described the change as a short-term solution until the lead pipes can be replaced.
Providence Department of Health will continue testing the water supply to determine if this is an adequate solution.
Though Congress banned the use of solder for pipes that contain above 0.2 percent lead in 1986, there is no explicit law that requires these pipes to be replaced.
When the lead system of pipes that runs under Providence was first installed, people did not know about the dangers associated with lead poisoning. As a result, lead is the primary connection for water running to older structures in the city, Nickerson said.
The EPA estimates that 40 million homes exceed the 15 parts per billion limit for lead in the water, Morin said.
Any lease requires a lead disclaimer in the case of paint, but not water, she said. Every single housing unit owned by Brown receives a “lead letter,” which reveals the lead content of the water, said Richard Bova, senior associate dean of residential and dining services. The University has equipped buildings like 74-80 Benevolent St. with filters on all their faucets to prevent high lead levels. This filtration began in 2007, Bova said, and the water filtration systems are changed twice per year in order to maintain water quality.
This costs hundreds of dollars on a building-by-building basis, Maiorisi said.
According to the Safe Drinking Water Act, Providence Water must send out an annual water report to every mailing address in the city. But there is no legal requirement for landlords to regulate lead in the water or inform their tenants, Nickerson said.
“The private home becomes the private home at the property line,” he said. Providence Water has no jurisdiction over the pipes beyond those owned by the city. It is up to homeowners to remove the lead pipes themselves.
This process can be extremely expensive – Hamburg said pipe replacements for his own home cost around $4,000.
“Straight flushing” – leaving the tap open for around three minutes – can reduce lead because it flushes out standing water, Nickerson said. It can be just as effective as replacing pipes, he said.
Providence advertises itself as having the “second-best water in the country provided through a municipal system,” Morin said.

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  1. Richard Rabin says:

    There is another culprit in the story of lead in our water: the lead industry. For decades after the lead companies knew that lead pipes could cause lead poisoning they continued to sell and promote lead pipes. (see The Lead Industry and Lead Water Pipes: “A Modest Campaign”; Am J Public Health. 2008;98:1584-1592)

  2. David A. Nickerson, Providence Water says:

    A person reading your October 8 article: “Lead levels rise in aging Providence buildings” might draw the conclusion that water mains in the Providence Water distribution system are made entirely of lead.

    Not true! In fact, the only lead water encounters in its journey from the treatment plant to consumers is found in less than 25% of our system’s 70,000+ small service connection pipes that bring water into customer properties from the mains in the street. All service connections are jointly owned by Providence Water (the section from the main to the customer’s property line) and the property owner (the section from the property line into the property itself). Water that flows through the distribution system is virtually lead-free.

    The story’s implication that Brown University’s drinking water lead issues are the result of city-owned supply systems and that the University has no control over the situation is also completely false. Perhaps the school is unaware that the University has all the control to eliminate their lead issues. The surest method is to replace a property’s interior lead plumbing and remove any water service connection made of lead. This, however, can be expensive for property owners and many choose not to do this.

    Providence Water has a long-standing policy — we will replace the utility-owned portion of the connection (from the main to the customer’s property line) free of charge anytime a customer chooses to replace the section of a lead service connection they own at their expense.

    We all share a common goal — to minimize anyone’s exposure to lead. We stand ready to work side by side with Brown University to “get the lead out” once and for all.


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