College addresses water issues in Sigma Phi Society’s house


The Geology Club recorded that the Sigma Phi Society second-floor water fountain tested 20.367 ppb (parts per billion) of lead during the Geology Department’s Union College Water Initiative water testings. The USEPA action level for lead is 15 ppb.

In response to this, Campus Environmental Health and Safety officials were notified, and the water supply to the fountain was immediately shut off by Facilities Services. An out-of-service sign was placed on the fountain to prevent anyone from further drinking the water.

Due to the students in the Geology Club not having the proper certification to officially report such results, the College hired St. Peter’s Hospital Environmental Laboratory in Albany to run another test on the drinking fountain. St. Peter’s Hospital Environmental Laboratory tested the water on Feb. 8, and found 20 ppb of lead.

The College has implemented an action plan in response to the elevated levels of lead in the water fountain. The plan begins with continuing to cut off the fountain’s water supply until remediation is completed. Facilities Services will be providing a one-line diagram with all water locations sustained from the same water as the main drinking fountain.

Further testing will be done for all of these water locations. Director of Media and Public Relations-Communications Phillip Wajda states, “A substantial amount of testing has already been performed off this main by the Geology Club, and found to be negative in all results except for the drinking fountain.

Over 30 samples were collected from Davidson South, including 10 from Sigma Phi specifically. Based on these results it is likely elevated lead concentration in the water is not a widespread issue.”

The Sigma Phi Society second-floor water fountain will be replaced with a filtration bottle fill station, and will then be retested to ensure that lead levels are below EPA guidelines. If the test is negative, the distribution main will be replaced and then retested.

To secure a successful remediation, Environmental Health and Safety officials will be retesting all sources connected to the drinking fountain water main before permitting access to the fountain.

Directing questions towards the college, the Concordiensis asked “What do you pinpoint as the main cause for the error of letting the lead concentration reach these levels?” In a written response by the College, this question was addressed as follows: “The city of Schenectady is Union’s municipal provider of water, which originates at the Great Flats aquifer (also known as the Schenectady aquifer). The city provides testing results for our water supply. We routinely flush the water supply in all buildings to remove any potential contaminants. Additional testing within campus buildings is performed as needed.” The majority of other drinking water sources on campus tested below 3.00 ppb of lead, with few exceptions.

Besides the the Sigma Phi Society second-floor water fountain, the largest exception to this was the right-side Olin Basement water fountain, adjacent to the women’s bathroom, which tested 14.263 ppb of lead. Water tests were performed on campus by the College’s Geology Club in response to the New York Legislature passed last Fall requiring all public schools to test their drinking water for lead contamination. Because colleges and universities in New York State were not included in the law, the Geology Department decided to perform their own testing.

Efforts were led by Associate Professor and Geology Chair Holli Frey and John and Jane Wold Professor Kurt Hollocher. Students tested 75 sources of drinking water for heavy metals such as lead, copper and zinc, covering every source of drinking water on campus from fountains to bathroom sinks. “The instrument that we use to test for heavy metal concentrations is the inductively coupled mass spectrometer (ICP-MS) that is in the Geology Department.

The analytical precision of the analyses based on running a standard as an unknown is 1 percent for Pb and Cu. The accuracy is about 1-2 percent. Professor Kurt Hollocher has been using this instrumentation for over 25 years, and is overseeing and running all samples with help from a few students,” Frey explains details of the procedures used during the water testing. Every source of drinking water but one tested with metal concentrations below the EPA guidelines.

Lead is dangerous to swallow or breathe due to the possibility of lead poisoning. Lead poisoning generally occurs over a period of several months or years. Although people with lead poisoning do not usually look or feel sick, even small amounts of lead can make someone sick. A low dose of lead can cause one to feel tired or irritable.

Lead remains in the blood for several months, and can be stored in one’s bones for over 30 years. The more lead one is exposed to, the more likely one is to get lead poisoning. To know for sure if one has lead poisoning, blood tests are encouraged, which will test the amount of lead in one’s bloodstream. Due to its negative effects on childhood development, lead is the most dangerous to children and pregnant women.


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