No one knows how long Rowan University's water has been contaminated with lead.
When the university announced this month that it had found elevated lead levels in the water of several buildings on its main campus in Glassboro, it could not say how many generations of students may have been drinking contaminated water.
It simply doesn’t know.
When lead is present in water, humans can’t taste, smell, or see it — it can only be detected by testing the water.
And Rowan, as far as administrators can tell, has never conducted any real testing of its water, other than at its child-care facilities.
That’s because the child-care facilities’ water must be tested, by law. But no law or regulation — not federal, not state — requires colleges and universities in New Jersey or Pennsylvania to test their water for lead.
“DEP does not have any regulatory program” for colleges and universities, said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection.
“The circumstances in Pa. are the same as in N.J.,” wrote Julie Lalo, spokeswoman for Pennsylvania’s DEP.
Without a testing requirement, many schools — including Rutgers, Rowan, and Temple — do not conduct systematic testing of their water. Rutgers said it has no plans to begin testing its water; Temple said it has begun assessing its risk, following Rowan’s finding of lead contamination.
Colleges should test their water, even if it’s not required, said Richard Luthy, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Stanford University who specializes in water quality and water quality engineering.
“It’s the prudent and wise thing to do so the public has confidence in the water supplier, and confidence in the health of their drinking water,” he said.
Lead contamination of drinking water is widespread and can be costly to remediate, but Luthy compared it to asbestos removal: As awareness spreads, action should be taken.
The lead contamination crisis in Flint, Mich., has especially drawn attention to the issue of lead in water recently.
“We’re saying this is a problem. It’s in the minds of the public,” Luthy said. “We’d better check, because maybe it’s been something we’ve overlooked, and now we realize we have to address this problem. It’s being responsible.”
Most colleges are connected to public water supplies, which are required to conduct some testing that may include campus buildings. But they are not required to test campuses specifically, and colleges are not required to do their own testing.
Rowan’s lead contamination has led Temple University to review its hazard levels.
“In light of that situation, a team of administrators here has been meeting to assess risk at Temple,” said Brandon Lausch, a university spokesman.
Temple’s water comes from the city system. Administrators are working with in-house faculty experts and its water treatment vendors for its campus evaluation.
“We think the risk is low,” Lausch said, “but we’re still going through some precautionary measures to look at this issue.”
Other colleges said they have no current plans to change what they are doing.
The College of New Jersey does test its water, though it has no set schedule to do so, a spokesman said. It last tested its water this spring, two years after the previous round of testing.
In the Pinelands, Stockton University tests its water every three years, though it is unique because it is required to do so — the school runs its own water system, drawing from a pair of wells on campus.
“When you do have responsibility for your own water, you don’t just take it for granted,” said Don Hudson, the university’s associate vice president for facilities and construction. “It’s a serious issue for us. It’s just as important as any other major health issue on campus.”
The last test was conducted in August 2015, and all samples came back without any lead detected.
New Jersey’s largest university, Rutgers, has never performed general water testing, said Antonio Calcado, who heads Rutgers’ facilities and operations throughout the university.
“There’s no regular protocol for testing water,” Calcado said. “Only in response to an event, or in response to if there’s a specific complaint or something.”
For example, the university tested some water at Rutgers-Newark because of elevated lead levels found in the public schools there.
Otherwise, Calcado said, the monetary and temporal costs would exceed the potential benefits.
“A regular testing policy that says we’re going to start on one end of the campus and end up on the other side of the campus, we just can’t justify that,” he said.
Rowan University, still working through its current problems, has not yet begun work on a long-term plan, said university spokesman Joe Cardona.
The university does not appear to have ever tested its water before in a comprehensive or representative way, Cardona said.
Rowan discovered its lead contamination problem after reports of discolored water — caused by iron — in an administrative building. Testing of water in that building found elevated lead and iron levels, leading the university to test several nearby buildings that are connected to the same source.
Most of those samples tested had lead in them, with many exceeding a federal standard that requires action. (No amount of lead in water is considered safe for drinking, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.)
The university immediately disconnected water fountains, distributed bottled water to dorms, and installed new hybrid water fountain/bottle-refilling stations that have filters certified to remove 99 percent of lead.
Rowan plans a comprehensive study of water in every building on campus and has hired a firm to help develop a long-term strategy.
But first, Cardona said, the university has to get through its current problems: “It’s premature. We’re just at the beginning of this.”