The university’s Facilities Department recently discovered higher levels of contaminants in the water fountains in the Brown Social Science Center and Edison-Lecks building, after having been dormant due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an email sent to The Brandeis Hoot by Lori Kabel, Facilities Services Director.
“All wall-mounted drinking fountains will be turned off due to high levels of lead found in the tap water. The kitchen sinks will remain functional, but must not be used for drinking/consumption (humans and dogs!),” read an email obtained by The Hoot sent to students on the chemistry list-serv and faculty who typically occupy the Edison-Lecks building.
Kabel explained that campus water fountains were shut off when COVID-19 began spreading throughout the United States in early 2020, “as a precautionary and protective measure for our students and staff.” The university tried to limit the use of water fountains that could spread the virus on campus.
With the water fountains being unused for over a year, the chances of water contamination increased, according to Kabel. She explained to The Hoot that, “with any idle water system, the supply lines and fixtures, as well as tightly-controlled drinking water pH levels, affect the leaching of metals into drinking water lines.”
When students and staff returned to campus, the Facilities Department coordinated with the Environmental Health and Safety Department to test at least one fountain in every building for contaminants, according to Kabel. This would indicate to the departments which fixtures to shut down in the event of higher levels of contamination.
“We instituted a sampling plan focused on water fountains that sat idle and were identified as potentially the worst-case scenario for water quality after the pandemic,” Kabel wrote in the email.
The Facilities Department and Environmental Health and Safety Department determined that there were approximately 12 fountains with higher levels of contaminants than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends, according to Kabel. The majority of these contaminated samples, according to Kabel, were found in water sources throughout the Brown Social Science Center and Edison-Leck building.
Since discovering the issue, the Facilities Department has flushed the lines of all buildings where high concentrations of contaminants were detected. “Flushing allows the water supplied by [Massachusetts Water Resources Authority] MWA to remove the build-up of naturally occurring debris and sediment,” wrote Kabel.
New fountains were back-ordered to replace the current fountains in the buildings that continued to have unsafe levels of contaminants after flushing, including the Brown Social Science Center and Edison-Lecks buildings, and are estimated to be installed by January 2022.
The Brown Social Science Center is also scheduled for a major renovation next year, wrote Kabel, during which the water contamination issue will be addressed. Until then, the water bottle fillers will remain shut off and water bubblers will be placed above the fountains in both buildings, according to Kabel. The university has also posted signs on those fountains indicating that the water is not safe to drink.
Kabel clarified that it is safe to wash dishes, tables and utensils using the water from these fountains, as “only a small amount of water clings to surfaces such as those.” She added that it is also safe for students and staff to use the hand washing sinks in these buildings because “it is not uncommon for hand washing sinks to use non-potable water.”
According to Kabel, the Facilities Department reached out to “points of contact” in each building, who passed the information on to their staff. By the time of publication, Kabel did not respond to The Hoot’s follow-up to elaborate on which “points of contact” she was referring to.
According to the Brandeis University Parents Community Facebook page, some parents who reached out to the Department of Community Living about the issue were told there was “no truth to this and that Facilities is monitoring it carefully.”
“Facilities and Environmental Health and Safety tested the water to ensure our levels were within standards after being idle so long in order to protect our staff and students. When levels were high, we took action accordingly,” wrote Kabel. “The safety of our students and staff is our #1 priority and this is one step we take to ensure it remains our priority.”
The Environmental Health and Safety Department did not respond to The Hoot by the time of publication.