Residence hall water samples contained up to 15 times the EPA-approved lead level

The lead content in select faucets and drinking fountains on campus was over twice the Environmental Protections Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion last spring, according to public records obtained by the Emerald.

According to the EPA, water that tests higher than 15 ppb is unsafe for human consumption. Utility companies must take action to treat their water if lead levels exceed 15 ppb.

UO alerted residents in September that water in Bean, Hamilton, Walton and Barnhart halls had tested above the 15 ppb federal action level, but it did not specify the actual results. Initial sample test results show that multiple fixtures in all four halls had lead levels above 30 ppb, twice the EPA action level.

A lack of consistent lead testing before this spring means that water has been lead-tainted for an unknown amount of time.

University spokesman Kelly McIver confirmed that given the lack of consistent testing, it is possible UO lead levels were over the EPA’s action level last school year. 

According to McIver, the university did not regularly test for lead before this spring.

“In the past there was testing that was done, but it was not on a regular and ongoing basis. Testing happened as individual departments or buildings requested it,” McIver said. “Everything that the university is doing, in terms of the levels they choose to respond to and the testing program, is all voluntary.”

The EPA has mandatory testing regulations for utility companies, child care facilities and other institutions, but those mandatory regulations don’t cover the UO.

The reports also show the location of tainted faucets and water fountains in academic buildings such as Columbia Hall, Erb Memorial Union, Volcanology Hall, Clinical Services Building, Condon Hall, Knight Library, McMorran House and Treetops house.

Any water sources that continue to test positive for lead after treatment are shut off and marked, according to Adam Jones, building science manager with Risk and Safety Services.

Full test results and confirmation levels are now available online. Three types of water samples were taken: “initial,”flush” and “confirmation.”

Initial samples are “first draw” samples collected directly from the tap after a period of no usage. These samples were used to determine if a flush test – testing after the water has run for 30 seconds – was needed. Confirmation samples are taken after mitigation has been completed, to assure the water is safe to consume. The tests are conducted by an independent lab in Seattle, McIver said. 

One initial sample from a faucet in Barnhart Hall had a 229 ppb lead level, more than 15 times higher than the EPA’s action level. It dropped to 3.19 ppb after being flushed.

But this post-flush drop was not the case with all fixtures. A sample taken from a faucet in the Barnhart Cafe Bar was initially 61.3 ppb, but measured 74.8 ppb after a 30-second flush.

According to the CDC, “No safe blood level [for lead] has been identified, and all sources of lead exposure for children should be controlled or eliminated. Lead concentrations in drinking water should be below the U.S. EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion.”

Exposure to lead can cause behavioral problems and learning disabilities in young children and also affect the health of adults, according to the CDC.

The university is currently working to fix lead issues in buildings across campus, according to its interactive map. Water was declared safe to drink in Bean, Hamilton and Barnhart halls in an Oct. 4 email to residents.

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Jack Pitcher

Jack Pitcher

Jack Pitcher is the Editor in Chief of the Emerald. He's a business major and Trail Blazers fan.

Reach Jack at [email protected]