NIU reacts to lead in drinking water

By Jennifer McCabe

The NIU public water system is one of the many areas in Illinois that has an unhealthy concentration of lead in its drinking water, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency said.

NIU implemented a periodic sampling program for lead and copper in drinking water in 1992, NIU’s Environmental Health and Safety Department reported.

Most of the buildings that were experiencing higher levels of lead in the early stages of testing were the residence halls, where the water does not get circulated for months at a time.

In many places, the lead concentration was higher than the 15 parts per billion (ppb), the action level which is considered safe and the school is working to lower that number. “Our most recent results have indicated that nine out of ten samples from the same fixtures tested before are now below the 15 ppb and most were below the detection limit of 5 ppb,” the department reported.

The Environmental Protection Agency educational program is sending public service announcements to local broadcast stations and buying advertisements in The Northern Star and one other area newspaper to inform and educate the public on the dangers of lead and what they can do about it.

According to EPA regulations, NIU is required to inform the public about the dangers of lead intake, if the lead concentration is above 15 ppb. They are also required to use a standard language explaining what is wrong and what the public can do about it.

The EPA requires NIU to take an official test every six months and the next testing period is in the first week of December.

“We’re very optimistic. The systems will have been in full gear for months, and we expect to be below the action level,” James Nelson, NIU industrial hygienist said.

Nelson said one to two samples is not a good basis for the testing. NIU is taking more samples to figure out where the problem is and how it can be resolved.

The EPA has specific testing processes which the school is required to follow. The water has to be sitting for six hours before testing and when the first tests were taken, school had been out for three weeks. This affected the lead ppb for the school, Nelson said.

Samples were taken again after the system had been “flushed,” and the numbers were much smaller, he said.

The Environmental Health and Safety Department has started a flushing program to help lower the lead concentration. They have also implemented a more frequent testing system and they are currently studying the feasibility of a chemical treatment program to be used to cut down on the leaching of the lead, Nelson said. “We are doing every step we can to minimize exposure,” Nelson said.

There are also steps that each individual can take to help lower the amount of lead exposure, he said.

First, do not drink from the hot water taps. When drinking water, let the cold water run through the taps for two to three minutes before consumption. It is well worth the expense and only adds up to about 10 cents a month, Nelson said. Students can also start drinking bottled water, or purchase a filter for the tap.

The lead concentration affects anyone who drinks tap water in the area. Although, children are the most affected. “Kids brains are affected,” said Robert Vest, director of NIU’s Environmental Health and Safety Department. Lead can cause learning disabilities in children.

Lead is not a substance the body needs, it is an accumulated toxin. High concentrated amounts of the substance can be harmful, and will build up because the body gets rid of it very slowly, Nelson said. “Although we are not dealing with that much here,” he said, “a person gets more lead when they smoke a cigarette.”

The lead comes from the fixtures and faucets, so any house or building that sits for a long period of time will experience leaching. Manufacturers of faucets and fixtures are allowed up to eight percent lead in the faucets, which leaches into the water supply. “Even a brand new house or building will be affected, because of the fixtures,” Nelson said.

The Environmental Health and Safety Department encourages people to call who have questions or problems with the lead concentration. They are also going to do spot checks in areas where more data is required.

“We are making every effort to try to alleviate their fears and educate the public, but people have to take responsibility for themselves to avoid the lead. They also have to realize that there are many communities in the same situation we are in,” Vest said.