High lead levels have been detected in the water at three buildings at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Testing performed in early August found that water in Lovejoy Library, Rendleman Hall and Metcalf Theater has lead levels exceeding federal and state standards of 15 parts per billion.
Rendleman Hall and Lovejoy Library are among the oldest buildings on campus, and Metcalf Theater dates back to the 1970s, according to Rich Walker, interim vice chancellor for administration. But levels also tested high in Science West, which is a relatively new building that opened in 2013.
According to a notice sent out to students late Thursday, this is the first time lead levels on the Edwardsville campus have been found to exceed limits.
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The SIUE campus owns and operates its own water system, buying its water from the city of Edwardsville. The city tests the water supplied to the campus, according to the notice. City Engineer Ryan Zwijack said the city’s average lead level was 2.11 parts per billion in the most recent testing.
The message sent out to students indicated the potential for lead components in the system, but Walker said that is standard language they are required to include by the EPA. While they are not permitted to edit the language of the notice, he said, he is sure there are no lead components in the water system at the university.
That means that the age of the buildings largely is irrelevant, Walker said. “If we had 100-year-old buildings, it might be,” he said. “But it’s been illegal for decades to use fittings that are made of lead.”
Instead, Walker said the prevailing theory is that water sitting in the pipes for too long has simply absorbed too many contaminants. Zwijack confirmed that water sitting for long periods of time in pipes tends to accumulate more mineral content and can skew results. He said he wasn’t sure why SIUE tested its buildings during the summer, when the buildings are used less and the water tends to sit in the pipes longer.
The established standard is 15 parts per billion; Metcalf Theater tested at 22.7 and Rendleman at 25.7. Science West tested at 14.9, which is technically below the limit, but was close enough that Walker is including it on their list for examination.
But Lovejoy Library tested at 144 parts per billion. “That’s the head-scratcher in all of this,” Walker said. Is it solely because the library uses relatively little water — no showers, no food service, only a few restrooms and water fountains that are rarely used? Or is there another problem at the library?
“I don’t have a good answer for that yet,” Walker said. SIUE is hiring a civil consultant to look at the water system, specifically the library, to determine why it’s “so far out of whack” with the rest of the system, he said.
At the moment, SIUE officials are shutting down drinking fountains in the three affected buildings and workers have been instructed to run water for at least three minutes before using it for drinking or cooking. Walker later said they’ve decided to do the same at all buildings on campus as an extra precaution, including buildings that had normal test results.
Additional testing has been ordered and may begin as early as Friday if the test kits arrive in time, Walker said. He said they’re only required to test once more, but he intends to do multiple rounds of testing over the next several days. His office has briefed every department face to face, and they will be providing bottled water in the buildings where the water fountains are shut down.
“I know people will say I’m being overly cautious, but I don’t know that you can be overly cautious, and people wouldn’t feel right about it otherwise,” Walker said.
Walker said he’s still hoping the additional tests will come back within normal limits. “I’m hoping the testing shows it’s an anomaly in the system,” he said.
But if it comes back above the limit again, he said, they’ll have to look at doing something with the university water system.
“We haven’t gotten that far yet; I’m trying not to lose sleep over it,” he said. “What (could be done) is still a conversation to be had. We’re not even sure what the options are yet — filters, maybe.”
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, lead cannot been seen, tasted or smelled in drinking water. Older homes may still have lead taps or interior water pipes, and sometimes lead can leak into the tapwater from corrosion of older fixtures. The only way to know whether there is lead in your water is to have it tested.
Most studies show that exposure to lead-contaminated water alone would not be likely to increase blood lead levels in adults, according to the CDC. However, the risk varies on a number of factors, and infants who drink formula prepared with contaminated water may be at higher risk. Showering with contaminated water should be safe, as lead cannot be absorbed through the skin, according to the CDC.