Students at Sacramento State returned to school after winter break this week to find drinking fountains, bottle-filling stations and sinks in six classroom buildings and two dormitories shut down after elevated lead levels were discovered in the water.
The high lead levels were found by students and professors working on a research project during their tests of 449 sinks and fountains on the campus over a three-day period earlier this month. The testing revealed 27 water sources had lead levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s allowable limit of 15 parts per billion, according to California State University, Sacramento, officials.
The university shut down 85 sinks and fountains in “an abundance of caution” on Jan. 13, including 58 water sources that emitted lead levels between 5 and 15 parts per billion, said Steve Leland, CSUS director of environmental health and safety. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration limit for bottled water is 5 parts per billion.
“The water was turned off as soon as we became aware of it,” Leland said. “(The sinks and fountains) won’t be turned back on until we hire a third-party consultant to look at what we have.”
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Drinking-water sources were shut off in Eureka Hall, Folsom Hall, Placer Hall and the Shasta Theater, as well as in the Sierra and Sutter residence halls.
Four water sources had lead levels above 100 parts per billion – one as high as 400 parts per billion, Leland said. That sink, with a drinking fountain attached, is located in the basement of Shasta Theater. Leland said the area has not been used for a long time. The fountain has since been detached and the water shut off.
Despite the precautions, Sacramento County health officials consider the lead levels at CSUS a low health risk, said Olivia Kasirye, the county’s public health officer. She said that lead in water poses less risk then exposure to lead-based paint or lead in the atmosphere and soil.
Based on the lead levels in the water tested, Kasirye said she doesn’t anticipate anyone will show symptoms of lead exposure. “Symptoms don’t usually occur unless somebody has had really high levels,” she said.
Those symptoms generally include chronic illnesses such as hypertension and kidney disease, she said.
On Wednesday, bottled water was available at affected campus buildings, but many students seemed unaware of the problem despite an email sent out Wednesday morning and information posted on the Sacramento State home page.
Andrea Narez said she’s lived at Sierra Hall since last semester and was unaware of the high lead levels in the water. “I would hope they eliminate this issue as soon as possible,” she said. “For them to not be on top of these issues is kind of a letdown.”
Kenzie McLain, who lives at Sutter Hall, also said she was unaware of the lead problems. She said the shower and sink water on the second floor communal bathroom were working normally Wednesday morning.
Professors and students discovered the high lead levels as part of an experiential-learning research project. They had completed testing most of the school’s water fountains and sinks when they reported the high lead levels to university officials. The student team will complete their testing in the coming days.
Leland said he didn’t know of any previous lead testing at the university, which is not required by regulatory agencies.
Lead likely leached into the water from pipes and fixtures, Leland said. Testing after an extended period of nonuse during winter break may have contributed to the high numbers, he said.
“It’s something that happens once the water gets on campus, particularly when the water sits for a particular amount of time,” he said.
He said the water, supplied to the school from the city of Sacramento, has no detectable lead at its source.
The university has met with city and county officials and is hiring consultants to provide additional testing and to offer strategies to mitigate the problem, Leland said.
He anticipates that filtration could be required at some of the water stations. The school has installed water filters in the drinking fountains at the two residence halls, although water service won’t be turned back on until more testing is completed, he said.
Children younger than 15 and pregnant or nursing women should refrain from drinking campus water until additional testing is completed, according to information sent out by the university.
The campus has set up a town hall with a physician from noon to 1 p.m. Thursday in the University Union, Redwood Room. Students and staff can have their blood tested for lead levels at no charge by calling Student Health and Counseling Services at 916-278-6461.
Kasirye recommends that people with concerns about lead exposure go to their primary care physician so they can receive a risk assessment as well as testing.
“We are very encouraged by the steps they are taking because they are acting out of an abundance of caution, putting information out there and making testing available,” Kasirye said of the university’s response.