Multiple water sources throughout the university’s main campus tested near or slightly above Environmental Protection Agency-designated action levels of lead concentrations, according to a study by graduate students at Georgetown University.
The study identified several tap and fountain water sources in academic and facilities buildings as having concentrations of lead that neared or exceeded the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion. Second-year masters students Julie Oh, Tianze Pan and Misti Persaud in the university’s environmental metrology and policy program, which focuses on measurements science of environmental toxic chemicals resulting policymaking, conducted the study.
If more than 10% of tap water samples exceed the lead action level, water systems are required to take additional action, according to the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule.
About 75% of the water sources tested, including the tests performed in a residential building, yielded lead concentrations below 1ppb, well below the EPA’s alert level, according to the study. However, several water sources consistently produced lead counts near or above the action level.
Counts in one building on campus reached levels above EPA standards. Taps on the fourth floor of the Reiss Science Building yielded a lead concentration of 6.86ppb. The kitchen sink in the Office of Planning and Facilities Management, which is housed on the lower level of New South Hall, yielded a lead concentration of 13.67ppb, and a sink on the fifth floor of White-Gravenor Hall yielded a lead concentration of 18.02ppb for sample one and 12.72ppb for sample two.
Drinking water with more than 15ppb of lead can cause delays in physical or mental development, kidney problems and high blood pressure, according to the EPA. Children are especially vulnerable to lead, and even a low exposure level may result in damage to the nervous system and learning disabilities, according to the EPA.
The researchers informed facilities workers in New South of the contamination and recommended they avoid drinking water from those sources.
While the results are not entirely conclusive, the researchers believe informing the Georgetown community about the contaminants is their responsibility, according to Persaud.
“As scientists, it is our job to investigate the information given to us from the data,” Persaud wrote in an email to The Hoya. “However, as humans we feel obligated to let the student population know that this is a problem and to take steps to avoid possible lead contamination.”
The researchers collected two samples of tap and fountain water from 11 buildings on campus: White-Gravenor, Lauinger Library, O’Donovan Hall, the New South facilities office, Reiss, the Intercultural Center, Copley Hall, the Car Barn and Regents Hall. The second set of samples for the study was collected two weeks after the first.
Persaud recommended the university replace lead piping on campus and inform students and faculty about possible water contamination. She also encouraged students to use water filters and to get water from other sources.
Lead contamination can occur when lead pipes are corroded by the water flowing through them, according to the EPA. Lead pipes were commonly used in homes and buildings built before 1986.
Georgetown has not publicly provided information about the composition of pipes in many of its older buildings or in off-campus buildings, including the Walsh Building, Alumni Square and LXR Hall, according to the study.
The university plans to investigate the results of the study to ensure the school is meeting safety standards, a university spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya.
“The safety and quality of our drinking water is one of our highest priorities,” the university spokesperson wrote. “Out of an abundance of caution, we are conducting follow-up testing in areas where the student results indicated that there may be elevated levels. Based on the results of these tests, we will take appropriate action.”
Georgetown’s Environmental Health & Safety team regularly tests for lead in areas where children under six may be present on campus. Earlier this year, EHS performed environmental assessments and tested drinking water samples in 18 locations across campus and all results were below detection limits, according to the university spokesperson.
High levels of lead contaminated Washington, D.C.’s water supply in the early 2000s after the city began using a treatment chemical that corroded the city’s aging pipe systems, according to The Washington Post.
90 percent of homes with lead pipes have a lead concentration of 2 ppb or lower, according to testing by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority.
The researchers trust that the university will act in response to the results of the study, Oh wrote in an email to The Hoya.
“Once Georgetown is notified of this issue, I strongly believe Georgetown will act with diligence accordingly to benefit every member of the community and take the issue very seriously,” Oh wrote. “Our group would be open to working with the school’s administration to help resolve this issue anytime.”
The university has a responsibility to be transparent about the risks and realities of lead exposure on campus, according to Persaud.
“Washington D.C. is a city that is old and the pipes are mostly made of lead,” Persaud wrote. “DC does have a lead problem however one of the things that the University has neglected to do is to inform the student population of this problem.”
This article has been updated to clarify how many water sources tested near or above EPA action levels and to clarify the proportion of homes with a lead concentration of 2 ppb or lower in the District of Columbia.