Rowan University testing finds more lead in water

RA Maria Vasquez helps distribute bottled water at Rowan University's Mimosa Hall on Sept. 1, 2016.

Initial campuswide testing of Rowan University's water has found further lead contamination.

Last week, university officials said they had found elevated lead levels in several campus buildings tested in response to reports of discolored water. Those results prompted campuswide sampling, distribution of bottled water, and disconnection of water fountains.

The first campuswide testing results were announced Friday.

“The vast majority of results indicated the lead level in the water in buildings tested since Aug. 31 is well below the EPA Action Level, and in many instances no lead was detected,” stated a university website dedicated to the water testing.

In parenthesis, it added: “Elevated levels were found in some kitchen faucets in the ROTC building, Evergreen Hall, and Girard House.”

The university is using the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion.

That level is a regulatory standard for water utilities testing their systems — if 10 percent of samples are above that level, the water system is supposed to take action. It is not a threshold for determining safe drinking water, and the EPA and CDC consider any amount of lead in water to be dangerous.

The EPA is required to set “maximum contaminant level goals,” and has set the goal for lead in drinking water at zero “because lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels.”

University spokesman Joe Cardona said Rowan was using the 15 parts per billion standard because no other standard exists.

“We’re not misleading anybody, we’re saying this is according to the EPA — this is where they say you have to take actions at these levels, this is where our buildings are,” he said.

“We’re being very open, we’re being very transparent here.”

Some level of lead was detected in many samples taken as part of the campuswide testing, including in Chestnut, Magnolia, Willow, Mimosa, Westby, Winans, Mullica, Bunce, Bozarth, and Hawthorne Halls.

Lead was also found in water at several food preparation areas and sinks, according to test results released by the university, including in James Hall, Robinson Hall, the student recreation center, Science Hall, 600 Whitney, the food court grill, Starbucks, and the Owl's Nest restaurant.

In Holly Pointe Commons, an undergraduate residence hall that just opened this fall with 1,415 beds, two samples tested above the EPA action level. Cardona said the administration believes — because the building is new — that those tests were anomalies. Of 10 other samples from Holly Pointe, nine showed some amount of lead in the water.

The tests in this initial campuswide round of sampling were done by taking water straight from the tap, without waiting for the system to clear. On the flip side, this kind of testing better simulates the behavior of people grabbing a drink from a fountain or faucet, who often would not run the water first.

“While the latest results are promising, they provide only the broadest view of the quality of water in our buildings,” university president Ali A. Houshmand wrote in a letter Friday to the university community. “We are working with the water-quality testing firm to develop and implement a comprehensive study of campus.”

The problem first came to light in July, after reports of discolored water in Linden Hall. Tests there showed elevated iron and lead levels, and Rowan tested water in nearby buildings that receive water from the same line.

In those first tests, Rowan said, lead levels above the federal 15 parts per billion “action level” were found at the Bole Annex and Carriage House administrative buildings, along with the Oak Hall and Laurel Hall residences.

Every sample in Oak and Laurel showed some level of lead. In Linden Hall, every sample showed lead; one sample drawn from the kitchen in Room 222 had a lead level of 822 parts per billion, or more than 54 times the EPA's action level.

Several samples taken at Memorial Hall showed lead in the water but did not exceed the action level.

After its first tests, the university disconnected water fountains and placed warning signs on them. Bottled water was distributed to dorms, and filters were installed on hybrid drinking/bottle-refill stations.

On Friday, the university said it was continuing to install those stations, in some places replacing traditional water fountains, and will continue providing bottled water in residence halls until the comprehensive study of campus water is complete.

A campuswide informational meeting is scheduled for Monday evening in Mimosa Hall.

“I know the last week has been disconcerting and a great inconvenience,” Houshmand wrote in his letter Friday. “Thank you for your patience as we work to ensure the safety of our water supply.”