Elevated levels of lead identified in several water sources in a recent study conducted by Georgetown University graduate students means that members of the Georgetown community are subject to potentially dangerous drinking water.
To ensure community members are not experiencing the pernicious effects of lead, Georgetown should identify and replace deteriorating lead pipes, notify students of locations with elevated lead levels and make water filters available for those who are at risk of lead exposure.
The study identified multiple locations, including several floors of White-Gravenor Hall and the Office of Facilities and Management in New South Hall, with lead levels near or above the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level of 15 parts per billion, the threshold at which water suppliers are required to inform their customers about lead. Floors two through five of White-Gravenor Hall averaged a lead level of 13 ppb, and the facilities office had a similar concentration of 13.67 ppb, according to the study.
Lead exposure is particularly dangerous for young children under 6 years old, and adults are also at risk for health consequences. Prolonged exposure can cause symptoms such as high blood pressure, difficulty in memory and concentration and abdominal pain, according to the Mayo Clinic.
No student, staff member or administrator should be at risk of lead exposure when working or living on campus. Georgetown has an obligation to ensure no one is inadvertently exposed to the dangers of lead because of university negligence.
Currently, the university is conducting follow-up testing and has promised to take appropriate action following the results, a university spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya. But the university should take precautions even before further testing is completed to protect community members’ health.
First, the university should publicly announce all locations the study identified with lead levels near or above the EPA’s action level through university-wide emails in order to ensure the entire community is aware of the issue. Georgetown should also display abundant signage to discourage people from drinking water from those locations.
Additionally, for those whose offices have elevated lead levels, the university should subsidize water filters, such as the Zerowater filter capable of filtering out 98% of lead, so all community members have access to safe drinking water.
These temporary mitigation efforts are necessary to prevent lead exposure, but the university should strive to permanently solve the problem by replacing deteriorating lead pipes.
Lead pipes were most commonly used in buildings constructed before 1986, according to the EPA. As a historic campus with an abundance of decades-old buildings, Georgetown is especially likely to find lead pipes in its infrastructure.
The university is not alone in facing the issue of lead pipes. As a city with a long history and thousands of lead pipes, the Washington, D.C. government has worked toward replacing the pipes. The Washington Metropolitan Water and Sewer Authority has been gradually replacing lead pipes under public streets and partners with homeowners to replace pipes on private property, according to the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment.
Because of the historic nature of campus, replacing lead pipes will not be easy or cheap. However, the university must used its deferred maintenance funds to follow through with its promise to ensure a safe and healthy environment on campus.
“Georgetown is committed to ensuring sufficient resources that allow us to maintain the safety and integrity of the infrastructure on our 230 year-old campus,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Last February, the university’s board of directors approved a $75 million allocation of funds to the deferred maintenance budget, which funds structural repairs and improvement of utility systems. The university must make replacing lead pipes a priority when allocating these funds.
The university has a wide range of infrastructure and maintenance problems to resolve. Replacing lead pipes, however, should not merely be an item at the end of the checklist that Georgetown will eventually get through.
Clean drinking water is not too much for students to ask from their school. Georgetown must undertake both immediate steps to address any health concerns and long-term infrastructure repairs to eliminate the possibility of lead.