Lead in water prompts action at Rowan University

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

Rowan University has found elevated lead levels in the water in several buildings on its main campus in Glassboro, prompting it to hand out bottled water in dorms, disconnect fountains, and begin a campuswide test of water quality.

The university sent an email blast around 5:45 p.m. Wednesday about the water. It also set up a website for updates.

“My goal in this thing is to absolutely make sure not a single individual is in harm’s way, and I’m going to try and spend whatever it costs to provide safe water,” president Ali A. Houshmand said Thursday.

Rowan is telling all students, faculty members, and staff to avoid drinking water from any building on campus unless it comes from a filtered fountain. The university is providing bottled water to all residence halls, and warning students not to cook or brush teeth with tap water.

Some drinks are temporarily unavailable at soda fountains on campus, since they are fed from the tap and could contain lead.

Lead is not absorbed through skin, so lead-contaminated water is considered safe for showering, washing hands, and laundry.

The university disconnected water fountains in affected buildings and has installed filters on water bottle filling stations in the dorms, which it said will remove 99 percent of lead. It also has begun checking water filters at all cafeterias and will test water in every building.

Because the municipal water system does not show elevated lead levels, the university said, the lead is likely coming from older pipes, plumbing fixtures, and lead-based solder.

Houshmand framed the lead problem as part of a larger issue of infrastructure on campus and across the nation.

Several buildings need to be replaced, he said. He cited Linden Hall, the administrative building, built in the 1950s, where the lead problem was first discovered, as an example.

“This has been more than 60 years of age … and it really is a dilapidated building. People should not be in there,” Houshmand said. “But here is my choice: What do I have? I need to have more money to build a brand-new building.”

Older buildings have other problems, he said, including asbestos.

“I’m going to go to our board [of trustees], and I’m going to propose a solution,” Houshmand said. “It may end up that a few of these buildings have to go, and we’re going to have to do that. I do not believe — and I hope this is not the case — for all of the buildings.”

Rowan learned of the problem in July, after reports of discolored water in Linden Hall.

After tests there showed elevated levels of iron and lead, the university began testing water in nearby buildings that receive water from the same line.

Last month, the Bole Annex and Carriage House administrative buildings were found to have elevated lead levels in the water — above the 15 parts per billion “action level” set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Elevated levels also were found in the Oak Hall and Laurel Hall residence buildings.

“I am so glad that we did the testing,” Houshmand said. “It is a serious issue; we’ve got to deal with this thing. And it’s really … very hard to deal with, because it requires massive resources, and that’s the challenge.”

The university does not yet have an estimate for the cost of its response, including filters, bottled water, and testing, a spokesman said.

Lead levels in Memorial Hall, another administrative building, were below the EPA’s action level.

Still, any amount of lead in water can be dangerous, the EPA says: “EPA has set the maximum contaminant level 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,” the agency says on its website. “Lead is persistent, and it can bioaccumulate in the body over time.”

While lead is particularly harmful for children and pregnant women, the EPA warns that adults exposed to lead may have cardiovascular issues, including increased blood pressure, decreased kidney functions, and reproductive problems.

Water-testing firms hired by the university began conducting preliminary tests Wednesday, using samples from every building on the main campus. The initial results should come back within 10 days.

The university is working with the state and private consultants to develop a long-term plan, Houshmand said.

A comprehensive survey of the campus water supply — including every drinking water and food-preparation outlet in every building — will take several months, he said.

In the meantime, Houshmand said, the university has begun assessing its space needs to see whether some people should be moved to new buildings.

“You really have to look at these things fundamentally,” he said. “We know some of the buildings that really need to go, and we’re going to have to do that.”