UNC concludes lead testing. Results + status of free health tests for students, staff
About seven months after lead was first detected in campus water fixtures at UNC-Chapel Hill, the university has completed its widespread testing approach but will implement new testing protocols going forward, university leaders said in a campus message Thursday.
The university also announced that free blood lead level testing will no longer be offered to students, staff or faculty beginning April 30. Student testing through the university’s campus health services will be billed to their health insurance after that date, while staff and faculty are being told to seek testing from their primary health providers.
The university’s announcement marks the end of phased testing that was spurred by students completing a summer project and the UNC professor supervising them, who first alerted the university to lead, a toxic substance, in the water after they performed testing last August.
According to data maintained by The News & Observer using test results published by the university’s Department of Environment, Health and Safety (EHS):
EHS completed testing in more than 250 buildings.
More than half of those contained at least one water fixture that tested positive for some amount of lead.
More than 400 individual fixtures were found to contain lead.
“We have reached the end of our fourth phase of testing, which means all drinking fixtures across campus have been tested for lead,” read the campus message from UNC vice chancellor George Battle and EHS executive director Cathy Brennan. “This process was a comprehensive, campus-wide effort that included multiple units and relied on the input and guidance of our faculty experts. We thank all of those involved for their hard work.”
Though testing has ended, the message said, “the remediation and corrective action for drinking fixtures that tested positive for any level of lead continues,” including replacing and repairing the fixtures. The message did not provide an estimate of when such action would be complete.
UNC will continue to test for lead going forward
Unlike public water systems, which are required under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule to regularly monitor customer water for lead, there are no federal requirements for universities to test for lead in campus water regularly, or at all.
Before beginning its phased testing last fall, UNC had not previously performed widespread or regularly scheduled testing for lead, instead testing only when requested or if there was believed to be a water quality issue, according to records reviewed by The N&O.
Moving forward, though, the university will now perform testing for lead every three years on drinking fixtures in buildings built prior to 2014. The campus message said such protocol “follows the 2014 revision of the lead-free definition for plumbing fixtures outlined in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Safe Drinking Water Act.”
Fixtures that test positive for lead, including those already tested and identified through the widespread testing performed this academic year, will be retested no more than a year after corrective action has been taken, such as repairing or replacing the fixture.
The university will also test newly constructed buildings prior to the buildings becoming occupied, “as was done in the past,” the campus message stated.
Free health testing no longer available after April 30
Lead is a toxic substance that, even at low levels of exposure and ingestion, is known to cause adverse health effects, especially in children and pregnant women. In adults, the EPA says, lead exposure can lead to cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure, hypertension, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems in both men and women.
As the university continued its widespread testing this academic year, health testing for blood lead levels was available for free to students, faculty and staff who lived or worked in buildings where water fixtures tested positive for lead.
“At this time, no one has received a result exceeding the reference range,” UNC media relations manager Erin Spandorf told The N&O by email Friday.
The free testing will end after April 30, the university announced in Thursday’s campus message.
After April 30, students will still be able to seek testing through the university’s campus health services, but their health insurance will be billed for the cost of testing, “as is done for all other laboratory testing,” Spandorf wrote.
“This means that what the student will pay depends on what their specific insurance plan covers,” Spandorf wrote. “Blood lead level testing is a low-cost lab test relative to other tests and, in most instances, health insurance plans cover the majority if not all of what is billed for this testing if any potential lead exposure has been documented.”
Faculty and staff seeking blood lead level testing will no longer be able to do so on campus, as the the University Employee Occupational Health Clinic will stop offering testing after April 30. After that date, faculty and staff who wish to receive testing should contact their primary health care provider.