UNB deals with lead concerns

FREDERICTON (CUP) — 18 per cent of fountains and sinks on the University of New Brunswick campus were found to have lead levels exceeding Health Canada guidelines after campus-wide water quality tests.

More than 420 samples have already been sent to an outside laboratory. Facilities Management began testing fountains and sinks on campus after a student-led effort last fall turned up above average levels of lead in a fountain in Bailey Hall. A UNB professor also expressed concerns about water quality on campus.

Fountains and sinks that were found to have high lead levels have been turned off or marked out of service. Drinking water sources have been tested in every building on campus and people on campus are still asking whether or not their fountain or sink has been tested, bringing to light additional sources on campus.

Barbara Nicholson, associate vice-president of capital planning and property development, said Facilities Management is taking samples from new sinks and fountains as they are made known.

UNB has been testing what they call “worst-case scenario samples,” a decision they made in conjunction with the consulting firm helping them throughout the process.

“What that means is that we’re not quite following the testing guidelines that would be established by public health in that we’re not flushing the water. We’re taking the sample right from the tap immediately. Primarily, those are being taken first thing in the morning after the water’s had the chance to sit for a while,” Nicholson said.

The vice-president said they are testing like this because it’s more representative of how people could be accessing water because most people don’t flush out the taps before drinking.

According to Nicholson, Canada Health guidelines state water with more than 10 micrograms (.0001 milligrams) of lead per litre isn’t fit for consumption.

“We have some samples with levels that are very close to the limit; they’re below that, but they’re very close. We’re going to go back and retest those ones for peace of mind and comfort and we have some that are over that limit,” she said.

Nicholson didn’t have the numbers for how far over the recommended limit the samples were. She also couldn’t say if people were at risk of lead poisoning.

“I can’t answer that question because I’m not a medical expert, but there are resources available if people are concerned. The guidelines are based on an extended exposure, not just a one-off occasion,” she said.

UNB’s Water Quality Working Group has been consulting with experts from the Department of Health and says the department is pleased with the process they’ve taken.

UNB has already ordered 20 new water fountains with lead filters; ten of them are the new type of “hydration units” with water bottle fillers. They already had three in stock as part of UNB’s plan for a more sustainable campus. In the past week they’ve determined more fountains need to be ordered.

Fountains cost about $5,000 each to replace, expenditures that were not planned for in the budget.

“There is a small amount of funding that was already established for that (hydration unit initiative), but this certainly is a much bigger initiative,” Nicholson said.

Once new fountains are installed, they will be retested to ensure the lead filters are keeping levels far below the limit.

Nicholson expects the process will take up to six months to complete.

“It’s about a step-by-step process. Right now we are in what I would call the first step, and that’s identifying all of the fountains and the sinks that need to be addressed. That’s going to take us still a bit more time and then we have process of doing more physical work and that could take up to six months before we get everything addressed,” she said.

In the meantime, UNB is working on testing and retesting drinking water sources, installing new fountains and compiling a list of affected sources, that will be made available online.

The nearby St. Thomas University is experiencing a similar problem. They began testing lead levels after the water issue surfaced at UNB.

Five fountains on campus tested outside the requirements for drinking water quality and three were close to the limit.

According to a statement issued by Bill Maclean, director of facilities at STU, six units total have been taken out of service from two different residences and two more were taken out of service from another hall.

The STU administration has also ordered drinking fountains with a lead filtration system.