Students conduct water testing

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In today’s world, water has become a very hot topic, which was further ignited by the national crisis in Flint, Mich. Water contamination discussion has made its way onto our very own campus. From this year’s ESPE Winter Seminar Series in the Nott entitled, “Get the Lead Out” to last year’s Green Fee initiative of installing new water filter stations across campus, the safety of our drinking water has been a very important concern in all our minds.

In fact, some students, professors, and faculty refuse to drink Union College’s water because they do not trust it; however, this is completely unfounded, as recent analyses demonstrate. In September 2016, Governor Cuomo signed into law bill A10740/S8158 passed by the New York State Legislature which required all public schools within New York state to test their drinking water for lead contamination.

If lead levels exceed the U.S. EPA standard 15 parts per billion (ppb), the schools are required to shut down that source and to notify the state Health Department of their findings and develop a plan to remedy the contamination. Although the legislation was an important first step, it did not cover private schools, daycare centers, colleges, universities or the community at large. To bridge this gap, the Geology Department has established the Union College Water Initiative (UCWI).

Led by students of the Geology Club, they have started a campus wide initiative to test drinking water for heavy metals, including lead, copper, and zinc. Over the past few weeks, these students have since been sampling all sources of drinking water (from filtered fountains to bathroom sinks) throughout all major residence, recreational, and academic buildings on campus. Prof. Kurt Hollocher has spearheaded the analyses, training several geology majors in the use of the departmental Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometer (ICP-MS) unit, while Prof. Holli Frey has facilitated the logistics and sampling protocol.

Thus far, the UCWI has analyzed ~75 water samples from across campus. With a single exception from a non-filtered fountain, results for all water tested report metal concentrations well below the EPA standards. For the fountain where results exceeded EPA limits, campus Environmental Health and Safety officials were notified and Facilities Services temporarily shut off the water supply to that fountain. The water from the fountain will be re-tested by a certified lab and if not in compliance, the issue will be addressed appropriately.

Based on this project’s findings, the recently installed carbon filtered fountains and water filling stations across campus are decreasing the metal concentrations by up to two orders of magnitude. Later this year, the people involved in this project hope to begin Phase 2 of the drinking water project – analyzing the drinking water of faculty, staff, and administrators, who may be concerned about the quality of drinking water in their homes.

Eventually, they would like to offer the Geology Department’s uncertified services to the community, as a preliminary informational tool and refer them to an official testing laboratory if needed. Their goal is to educate people about drinking water quality and how to mediate a problem if contamination is found. The water source for Union is the Great Flats aquifer (also known as the Schenectady aquifer), which underlies the Mohawk River Channel. All water from this source is filtered through treatment plants, which are routinely monitored for inorganic chemicals, radioactivity, lead and copper, nitrate, volatile organic compounds, and synthetic organic compounds.

As documented in the 2015 City of Schenectady Annual Drinking Water Quality report, Schenectady water is very safe and of high quality, with the 90th percentile from 30 samples yielding a lead value of 2 ppb and copper value of 78 ppb (USEPA copper standard is 1,300 ppb). Hypothetically, the level of these metals in Union College’s water should be equivalent to the Schenectady source water.

If levels of heavy metals are higher, it can be assumed that water contamination is primarily from materials and components associated with campus service lines and local plumbing. All drinking water locations on campus that have been sampled have been tagged with a “Union College Water Initiative” label.

If you would like to be part of the Union College Water Initiative sampling team and sample your own water or want to simply learn more, please contact Alex Dolcimascolo ’17 (dolcimaa@union.edu).

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