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The main UNC-Chapel Hill campus receives its tap water from the Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA). OWASA’s water supply originates as rainfall within the Cane Creek and University Lake watersheds.

Feb. 3 Update on Lead in Campus Drinking Water

February 3, 2023

Environment, Health and Safety is testing water fixtures across campus for lead levels. The health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff is our priority, and we are working through a thorough process as efficiently as possible. We are addressing this situation with an aggressive campus-wide effort that includes multiple units and relies on the input and guidance of our faculty experts.

Water Testing

We have created a phased approach to find the fixtures that have the highest likelihood of containing lead based on their age or when the building was constructed.

As results and building notifications become available, they will be posted on the Drinking Water Lead Testing Results webpage and an update will be posted on the EHS Twitter account @unc_ehs. The water testing is proceeding in a phased approach that is expected to last multiple weeks (this includes residence halls):

  • Phase One – Water fixtures that potentially contain lead components based on their age and construction. (COMPLETED)
  • Phase Two – Water fixtures in buildings that were built in or prior to 1930. (COMPLETED on Friday, Oct. 28)
  • Phase Three – Water fixtures in buildings that were built in or prior to 1990. (COMPLETED on Friday, Dec. 30)
  • Phase Four – A future phase expected to occur following phase three, based on preview sampling of some post-1990 buildings that is currently underway to understand what results of this phase may look like. (IN PROGRESS)

Buildings to be Tested the Week of Feb. 6 (This List is Subject to Change)

  • Anderson Softball Training Facility
  • Houpt Physician Office Building
  • Neurosciences Research Building

Blood Lead Level Testing

The University is making blood level testing for lead available to all UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, staff and students who work, study or live in the affected buildings.

To speak to a campus health provider about getting tested:

  • Students and post-doctoral fellows should contact Campus Health at 919-966-2281.
  • Faculty and staff should contact the University Employee Occupational Health Clinic (UEOHC) at 919-966-9119.

For questions and further information, please refer to the FAQs included on this webpage. Additional questions can be directed to Environment, Health and Safety at 919-962-5507.

Previous Updates

We understand that the news about lead in some drinking water sources at UNC-Chapel Hill is concerning. Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) at UNC-Chapel Hill is actively working to determine the extent of the problem and to develop solutions. The University is also coordinating with OWASA on these efforts.

Drinking water contaminated with lead can be harmful to health, especially for small children and pregnant women. This information is designed to provide resources on the health impacts from lead exposure, information on lead testing at UNC-Chapel Hill, and steps for addressing lead in drinking water.

How do I know if there is lead in my drinking water?
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US-EPA), testing drinking water is the only way to confirm whether lead is present.  According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the best way to know if there is lead in drinking water is to identify potential sources and test the water. You cannot see, taste, or smell lead in drinking water.
How does lead get into drinking water?
According to the CDC, lead can enter drinking water when a chemical reaction occurs in plumbing materials that contain lead. This is known as corrosion – dissolving or wearing away of metal from the pipes and fixtures. Lead in water can come from lead components and lead service lines that connect buildings to the main water line. Orange Water And Sewer Authority’s (OWASA) water distribution system has no known lead pipes. OWASA looked for and removed lead goosenecks connecting different sections of pipe from the water system in the 1990s.

Even without lead service lines, buildings may have brass or chrome-plated brass faucets, galvanized iron pipes, or other plumbing soldered with lead.

What is UNC-Chapel Hill doing to remedy the problem?
EHS is testing drinking water fixtures and posting the results on the EHS website and Twitter. Please go there for a comprehensive and up-to-date list. 

The water testing is proceeding in a phased approach that is expected to last multiple weeks (this includes residence halls):

  • Phase One – Water fixtures that potentially contain lead components based on their age and construction.
  • Phase Two – Water fixtures in buildings that were built in or prior to 1930.
  • Phase Three – Water fixtures in buildings that were built in or prior to 1990.
  • Phase Four – A future phase expected to occur following phase three, based on preview sampling of some post-1990 buildings that is currently underway to understand what results of this phase may look like.

A sign is placed on the fixture during testing to instruct people not to use the fixture. When EHS tests a fixture, it is removed from service until the results of the test come back.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule requires public water systems to take action when more than 10% of what has been sampled has more than 15 ppb of lead. OWASA is an example of a public water system, but UNC-Chapel Hill is not. 

EHS is using this 15 ppb action level as a reference, but we do not want to see any detectable lead in drinking water fixture results.

If any lead is detected, a fixture is placed out of service immediately and will be replaced or repaired. This is above and beyond what is required by the EPA for public water providers like OWASA.

What are the potential health effects of lead exposure?
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), health effects from exposure to lead are influenced by several factors including the age of the individual, the lead levels and length of exposure. Prolonged exposure to lead in adults may lead to neurological and cardiovascular symptoms, as well as an increased risk of kidney disease and reproductive disorders.

  • Neurological symptoms: Adults exposed to lead as adults may experience neuropathy, with symptoms including numbness, “pins and needles sensation,” and weakness in limbs. Lead-exposed adults may also experience many of the neurological symptoms experienced by children, but shown at higher blood lead levels.
  • Cardiovascular symptoms: Exposure to lead has been linked to headaches and increased blood pressure/hypertension. Sustained high blood pressure may in turn lead to increased risk of stroke, heart disease, and peripheral arterial disease.
  • Kidney disease: Exposure to lead has been associated with decreased renal function.
  • Reproductive disorders: Evidence shows that exposure to lead is associated with reduced sperm count, reduced fetal growth, lower birth weight, and the development of eclampsia and pre-eclampsia during pregnancy.
What should I do if I am concerned that I have potentially been exposed to lead?
If you are an employee with health concerns, please contact the University Employee Occupational Health Clinic at 919-966-9119. If you are a student and have concerns, please contact Campus Health at 919-966-2281. Non-student and non-employee community members and visitors who have health concerns should consult with their physicians.
Are you providing blood lead level testing?
The University is making health testing for lead available to all UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, staff and students who work, study or live in the affected buildings.

To speak to a campus health provider about getting tested:

  • Students and post-doctoral fellows should contact Campus Health at 919-966-2281.
  • Faculty and staff should contact the University Employee Occupational Health Clinic (UEOHC) at 919-966-9119.
What is the treatment for elevated lead levels in the blood?
For very high levels of lead in blood, which are typically associated with regular exposure over a long period of time, medical providers may recommend chelation therapy. Please consult your health provider for specific recommendations on treatments and therapies.
Are you testing the water fixtures in the childcare centers?
According to North Carolina state law, the water fixtures in childcare centers have to be tested for lead. The following links provide information on the most recent testing of water fixtures in UNC-Chapel Hill’s affiliated childcare centers:

What types of fixtures are being tested in buildings?
EHS is prioritizing testing for lead in typical drinking water sources such as drinking fountains, breakroom/kitchen sinks, and ice machines. Restroom sinks do not undergo testing unless there is no other source of drinking water available in the building.

EHS is approaching the current testing in phases, and testing is expected to last several weeks. Phase one focused on water fixtures that potentially contain lead components based on manufacturer make and model. Remaining buildings are prioritized based on dates of construction. Phase two will focus on buildings that were built prior to 1930. Phase three will focus on buildings that were built prior to 1990.

How often are water fountains on campus tested?
There are no federal or state regulations requiring colleges and universities to test for lead in drinking water sources. Drinking water has previously been tested by request when a building occupant has a concern about water quality.

EHS is approaching the current testing in phases, and testing is expected to last several weeks. Phase one focused on water fixtures that potentially contain lead components based on manufacturer make and model. Remaining buildings are prioritized based on dates of construction. Phase two will focus on buildings that were built prior to 1930. Phase three will focus on buildings that were built prior to 1990.

Are restroom sinks shut off when lead is found?
No. Lead cannot be absorbed through the skin. So, restroom sinks can still be used for washing hands and therefore will not be shut off. If a sink is being tested or has tested positive for lead, it will have a sign advising against drinking from or brushing teeth in that sink.
Can lead be found in newer fixtures as well?
In 2007, UNC-Chapel Hill experienced elevated lead levels in drinking water due to brass fittings installed during then-recent renovations and in newly constructed buildings. As a result, UNC-Chapel Hill has developed a flushing protocol upon the completion of renovations or new construction to reduce the levels below the National Primary Drinking Water Standard before the areas or buildings are occupied. Typically, the problem disappears within six months of normal use.

Lead pipe and lead solder were banned in 1986 by amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA)’s Lead and Copper Rule requires public water utilities, such as Orange Water And Sewer Authority (OWASA), to include corrosion control in their water treatment protocol sufficient to prevent lead leaching from pipes, solder, or fittings. The rule requires OWASA to test a representative sample of the community periodically to ensure compliance. OWASA’s water distribution system has no known lead pipe service lines. OWASA has always been in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule, and you can see more information on OWASA’s testing results on the OWASA website.

How long does lead stay in someone’s blood if they have consumed water with lead in it?
The half-life of lead in the blood is approximately one to two months. As such, blood lead level testing assesses recent lead exposure.
What should people do if they at some point in the past worked, studied or lived in buildings on campus where the fixtures are now testing positive for lead?
If the person in question is still student, faculty or staff at the University, they can get a blood lead level test at Campus Health (for students) or the University Employee Occupational Health Clinic (for faculty and staff).

If the person is no longer a student, faculty, or staff at the University and they are concerned about their health, they should consult with their healthcare provider.

Do the water bottle fillers on campus have filters that remove lead?
Some of the water bottle fillers do have filters that remove lead. EHS and Facilities Services are investigating this to identify which units already have filters that remove lead and which need to be outfitted or supplied with these filters.
What is the timeline for testing the water fixtures on campus?
While we are testing water fixtures in a phased approach, the timeline changes frequently as we coordinate resources to efficiently and quickly address this issue. As such, we don’t have specific dates for a timeline, but we can say that we are aiming to finish phase three by the end of 2022.
How long will it take for the University to replace or repair the fixtures that test positive for lead?
This depends on multiple factors, including how quickly we can get the replacement components in hand. However, we are working as efficiently and quickly as possible to repair and replace these fixtures.
What types of water fixtures are being tested?
Water fixtures currently being tested are those used primarily for drinking and preparing food. These include drinking fountains, water bottle filling stations, kitchen sinks, breakroom sinks, and ice makers.
Is it safe to wash my hands in water where I don’t know the lead content?
Skin does not absorb lead from water, so restroom sinks can still be used for washing hands. If a sink is being tested or has tested positive for lead, it will have a sign advising against drinking from or brushing teeth in that sink.
Is it safe to wash my hands in water with unknown lead content if I have a cut, scrape or wound on my hands or wrists?
Yes, according to the EPA, it is still safe to wash your hands and bathe in water that has unknown or known lead content even if you have a minor cut or scrape.
How do I know what phase my building is in?
To find what phase your building is in, go to maps.unc.edu and look up the building you are looking for in the search function. When you find that building and click on it in the search results, it should tell you the year that building was built.

  • Phase One – Water fixtures that potentially contain lead components based on their age and construction.
  • Phase Two – Water fixtures in buildings that were built in or prior to 1930.
  • Phase Three – Water fixtures in buildings that were built in or prior to 1990.
  • Phase Four – A future phase expected to occur following phase three, based on preview sampling of some post 1990 buildings that is currently underway to understand what results of this phase may look like.
What are the health risks of ingesting lead?
While lead is a toxic metal and serves no useful purpose in the body, health risks associated with exposure are individualized for each person. The risk depends on a variety of factors, including the age of the individual, their current health, how much of the water with detectable levels of lead they consumed and the length of time during which they ingested that water, etc. If someone is concerned about the possibility of having ingested lead, they can contact Campus Health or the University Employee Occupational Health Clinic for blood lead level testing.

If someone is concerned about their health and is not a current student, faculty or staff member, they should contact their healthcare provider.

Where can I go for more information?

Lead in Drinking Water Regulations

Lead in campus drinking water is attributed to three sources: Lead pipe, lead solder and leaded brass fittings. Lead pipe and lead solder were banned in 1986 by amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act, promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). Also, the USEPA Lead and Copper Rule requires public water utilities (OWASA) to include corrosion control in their water treatment protocol sufficient to prevent lead leaching from pipes, solder or fittings. The rule requires OWASA to test a representative sample of the community periodically to ensure compliance. OWASA has passed all Lead and Copper Rule tests. OWASA states that there are no known lead service lines in their territory.

Lead Water Testing for New Construction

In the past, UNC-Chapel Hill has experienced elevated lead levels in drinking water due to the brass fittings, specifically, newer fittings installed during recent renovations and in newly constructed buildings. Typically, the problem disappears within six months of normal use. As a result, UNC-Chapel Hill has developed a flushing protocol upon the completion of renovations or new construction to reduce the levels below the National Primary Drinking Water Standard before the areas or buildings are occupied.

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