Murky Waters: Lack of Testing and Traces of Bacteria Breeds Concern Over Campus’ Water

According to studies, the blueish-green stains on water fixtures can be an indication of corrosion in the pipes. / All photos by Derek Norman.

Brooklyn College has failed to produce public records indicating the quality of drinking water from the fountains on campus, despite having declared water consumption as a priority of the ten year master plan.

The Kingsman requested records of water tests after finding traces of the bacteria Coliform in a sample taken from a second floor water fountain in Boylan Hall last September, just several doors down from the administrative offices.

Coliform, a low-risk form of E. coli, is a bacteria that can make its way into a water system by environmental circumstance. Either cracks, unsealed or poorly constructed wells can allow the bacteria to seep into the ground well after a rainfall and contaminate the drinking water.

There are a lot more factors involved and we need to probably dig a bit deeper and look at more specifically what exactly is in the water,” said Dr. Ngai Yin Yip, assistant professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering of Columbia University. “Not all E. coli will make you sick. There are E. coli bacteria that your body is really used to and they can just go through your digestive system without causing you any problems. There might also be disease causing E. coli that can be present in water, but because the concentration is so low, your immune system will be able to deal with it so you do not fall sick.”

The only recent records of water testing on campus obtained from the college were that of James Hall, which was required by a state law signed last year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as James Hall holds a daycare center. An employee of the New York City School Construction Authority, who was unable to be reached for comment, conducted the test on May 12 and May 16 of last year.

Fountain filled with dirt and crumbs. In interviews, students expressed that dirt was one of the main
reasons they avoided BC’s water fountains.

“Government testers affiliated with the New York City Department of Education (DOE) took 70 samples from 35 potable water fixtures in James Hall,” said a Brooklyn College spokesperson on the matter. “The DOE conducts these tests because of the presence of young children on campus in both our Early Childhood Center and the Brooklyn College Academy.”

According to the Brooklyn College spokesperson, all 70 samples fell under the acceptable lead levels. Because state law doesn’t mandate water testing of colleges, the water in the other buildings has not been tested.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations, under the Safe Drinking Water Act that sets water standards, only mandates water testing for public places with their own water filtration system.  

In the 2011 Brooklyn College Master Plan, a priority and one of the main focal points, referred to as one of the “Seven Pillars,” was a sustainable water system. The plans included the replacement of old or worn-out pipes, the installation of equipment to prevent leaks into the ground well, as well as the installation/replacement of old water fountains, which would enhance the sustainability initiatives.

Now, halfway through the ten year plan, the sustainability initiative has begun to make progress, as several new water-bottle filling fountains have been installed around campus.

Like many of the campus’s infrastructural issues, the danger of contaminated or unsanitary water can be chalked up to the age of the buildings and the pipes that run through them.

Coliform bacteria / Stock Photo

Though, many students on campus have expressed concern with the fountains themselves as seeming dirty and unsanitary. In a recent online-poll conducted by the Kingsman, a majority of those surveyed said they will drink from a water fountain “only when necessary,” and a handful expressed that they will go out of their way to reach a water fountain that seems clean, with cold and non-stagnant water.

Each department provides a water cooler and water for the faculty members, which is paid for from their Campus Support Services budget.

Many water fountains on campus have a blueish-green slime or stain trailing down the fixture which, according to a study conducted by Penn State, can be an indication of corroded pipes, leading to a substantial amount of copper in the water. The study notes that the cause of copper in the water or a low pH, leaving the blue/green stain, could be a result of ground water leaching into the pipes. (The same cause that is common in allowing the coliform bacteria to get into a water supply.)

I wouldn’t say people should not be worried, but, on the other hand, this shouldn’t be something they should be losing sleep over,” said Dr. Yip. “We definitely do have a problem of potential lead leaching into our water drinking supply. This is a nation-wide problem where we have lead pipes that have been around for almost 100 years and for the most part the lead doesn’t leach out because we get the water chemistry right. But all it takes is just one little, one deviation, something goes very wrong and we have lead leaching into our drinking water.”

The growing concern over water quality comes at a time where contaminated water is an increasingly frequent occurrence, not only in the United States, like the immense water-crisis of Flint, Michigan, but particularly right here in New York City.

The Kingsman’s water test, showing a positive Coliform test.

Just last week, PS 289 in Crown Heights, a Brooklyn elementary school, had reportedly discovered over 1,000 times the safe amount of lead in the water, as according to federal safety regulations. Chalking the contamination up to old buildings and older pipes, the frequency of contaminated water is alarming. In an article published in DNA Info about the citywide issue, of more than 46,000 tested as of Jan. 25, there was a nine percent increase of lead-levels reaching the “action level.” A number of other elementary schools’ water tested for high lead levels including PS/IS 217 in Manhattan and PS 41 in the Bronx.

The Kingsman conducted a lead test, though the results could not be confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt that there were any traces of lead.

“We will continue to work with government agencies to insure that the campus continues to meet all public health and safety requirements,” said the Brooklyn College spokesperson.

“So this [is] more of a longer term issue that needs more attention that we need to really think about. How do we fully address these lead pipe issues and lead in drinking water issue?” asked Dr. Yip. “It’s going to take more comprehensive, more strategic planning rather than just my own drinking water [or] water at my school.”

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