A water fountain on the third floor of Humboldt State University's library is out of service, on Oct. 15. Results from HSU's summer water test released on Oct. 10 reported that lead particles in these fountains are higher than the Environmental Protection Agency's recommended limit. | Photo by Michael Weber

Something’s in the water

Following two other California State Universities, Humboldt State tested water sources on campus
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Following two other California State Universities failed tests, Humboldt State tested water sources on campus

Three drinking water fountains on Humboldt State’s campus have been removed from service for having lead levels higher than Environmental Protection Agency standards.

Humboldt State is the third CSU to test its drinking water for lead with all three finding water sources containing higher than recommended lead levels.

Over the summer HSU decided to test some of its drinking water sources after two other CSUs tested drinking water on their campuses and found that some sources tested higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s benchmark of an acceptable level of lead in drinking water.

Since 1991 the EPA regards lead levels in drinking water above 15 parts per billion to be the “action level.” Prior to 1991 the federal action level was 50 PPB.

Sabrina Zink is an Environmental Health and Safety specialist at HSU. Zink said that buildings and fixtures at HSU were selected by prioritizing areas that children under the age of six could be exposed to lead; this is the most vulnerable age for lead exposure in humans. After drinking sources were tested from fixtures that children regularly have access to, older buildings were targeted, and one building by original construction date per decade.

One hundred and twenty one drinking water sources were tested at HSU over the summer. Thirty seven of the 121 sources didn’t contain lead levels high enough to register detection during the test. Eighty one of the tested sources registered lead levels but fell below the EPA’s 15 PPB threshold. Three fixtures tested above or at 15 PPB and have since been removed from service.

Of the three that tested higher than the action level two were drinking fountains, and one was a sink. The fountains were in Forbes gym (16 PPB), and on the third floor of the library (86 PPB). The third fixture, a sink in the bottom floor of the library (15 PPB), tested right at the EPA action level.

“We decided to abandon these fountains,” Zink said.

Zink said lead usually finds its way into drinking water systems through the old fixtures and sometimes through dated fittings and solder.

The other two CSUs that tested drinking water on their campuses were Long Beach and Sacramento. Test results from these campuses revealed drinking water sources containing lead high marks of 127 and 390 PPB.

A spokesperson for the EPA, said the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has found that no safe blood level has been identified for lead, and all sources of lead exposure especially for children should be controlled or eliminated.

The EPA website states that children are particularly vulnerable to lead and that low levels of exposure in kids have been linked to learning disabilities and damage to the nervous system and exposure in adults can lead to decreased kidney function and reproductive problems.

lead in water
The highest lead level samples found in drinking water from three California State Universities and from Virginia Tech’s testing of Flint Michigan’s water crisis in 2015. | Graph by Walter Hackett

According to Zink there is currently no mandate for lead testing in the drinking water at CSU’s though the chancellor’s office did recommend that drinking water should be tested.

“We aren’t required by any regulation or law to test,” Zink said. “We thought it was the right thing to do.”

The CDC website states that you cannot see, taste, or smell lead in drinking water and the only way to know is to have it tested.

Roxanne Moore works at North Coast Laboratories, an Arcata based business that provides drinking water lead testing as a service. Moore said that they charge $27 per sample for lead water testing and the turnaround for results typically takes two to three weeks.

Starting at the beginning of 2018 a law in Calif. was enacted requiring that lead testing be carried out for drinking water for all k-12 public schools. So far, lead sampling for this initiative has tested 3,541 schools and found 137 sites that have tested higher than the EPA action level of 15 PPB.

In 1986 Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to prohibit the use of fixtures, fittings, and solder containing certain amounts of lead in public drinking water systems.

Zink said that further lead testing is planned for campus housing facilities.

“We are testing housing over Thanksgiving and Christmas break,” Zink said.

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