Maintaining Buildings & Grounds

Bad Water

campus water crisis


The crisis in Flint, MI, has brought drinking water safety to the forefront of everybody’s minds. College facilities departments have had to answer questions and send out letters about their water quality and protocols. Considering the health impact of lead and other impurities it’s no wonder people are asking what colleges and universities are doing to keep students, faculty and staff safe.

Lead is a serious health issue. The EPA states that, “Lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels.” The organization requires action be taken when levels reach 15 parts per billion. The heavy metal causes behavior and learning problems in children, along with slowed growth and lowered IQ. Adults can suffer from cardiovascular effects, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems.

Old, corroding pipes and solder can release lead into drinking water. In the case of Flint, switching the water source from Lake Huron to the highly corrosive Flint River triggered the release of lead along with other contaminants into the city’s supply. Since the incident came to light, area colleges have stepped up testing and are making a concerted effort to reach out to students and parents.

The University of Michigan–Flint (UM–Flint) has been testing their campus drinking water since October 2014. By January 2015 they committed to monthly testing and keep their community informed with a comprehensive website ( and emails. While testing revealed the school was safe from lead, it did find elevated levels of trihalomethanes (TTHMs).

A byproduct of disinfecting water with chlorine, long-term exposure to TTHMs increases the risk of certain cancers, causes reproductive issues and can damage the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and the central nervous system. Since this crisis came to light UM–Flint has replaced fixtures and pipes, installed filters and converted water fountains to filtered bottle refill/drinking stations. They have installed filtered water stations throughout campus and have distributed filters to members of the surrounding community.


Kettering University is located in Flint but as the water infrastructure that supplies it is reasonably modern with high flow rates and no lead-copper transitions in the supply lines, they have not had a problem with contamination. However, they have had lots of questions and concerns, prompting University President Robert McMahan to send out letters to parents, alumni and students about the safety of the water. McMahan has even criticized the media for spreading “a great deal of misinformation” about the water, as reported by the Detroit Free Press.

Still, the university continues to test water and report results. They also report using filters, flushing food service water source lines for at least five minutes and only using cold water for cooking.


Lead in drinking water is not a new issue. The University of Regina in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan had a lead scare in August of 2012 when samples taken from drinking fountains showed an elevated level of the metal. While the levels were below Health Canada’s recommendation of 0.020 milligrams per liter for a nonresidential site, the school took immediate action.

Drinking fountains were immediately shut down and replaced with water coolers. Repairs were made to plumbing and an older sink and fountain were removed entirely. The entire building was flushed and a heavy metal filter was installed.

University officials blame the age of the historic College Avenue Campus building for the presence of lead. They tested the water quality quarterly for a year and then moved to annual testing.


Cornell University, in Ithaca, NY, posts about their water use, testing and conservation policies online. They report that conservation measures have reduced consumption by half since the early 1970s despite almost doubling their campus building square footage. While they are proud of that, along with their entire water program, Christopher Bordlemay, Water/Wastewater manager, reports that recent events have trained a spotlight on the operation. He stopped to answer a few questions.

Flint’s water crisis has put the spotlight on water systems everywhere. Did Cornell receive an uptick on questions about water safety in the last few months?

“Yes, we have received calls from concerned customers. We are fortunate that Cornell’s water quality is excellent and we do not have issues with lead in our water system.”

You have outlined your robust water safety and conservation program on-line. Is that in response to the situation in Flint? Have any of your protocols changed since their crisis?

“Cornell has published water safety and conservation program information online for many years. We also post an annual Water Quality Report online. Because Cornell already had a lead- and copper-monitoring program in place that meets all regulatory standards, it was not necessary to change any of our protocols in response to the crisis in Flint. However, we understand the heightened sensitivity and take great care in answering any questions from the local community.”

What are the major water safety challenges to a 151-yearold institution like Cornell and how do you address them?

“Our biggest challenge is replacing and updating aging infrastructure. We are very fortunate to have capital programs in place to accomplish this task sequentially and strategically. Cornell has invested significant resources in plant modernization and distribution system improvement, and expects to continue to maintain a very safe, reliable, and efficient water system.”

One thing is for certain: the water crisis in Flint, MI, has brought to the forefront concern over the quality and upkeep of public water sources, and colleges and universities across the country are working to ensure their students, staff and visitors that they are maintaining clean, healthy water for everyone on campus.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

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