All clear at the water fountain? 

On a recent visit to the University of Montana’s journalism school, an Independent reporter stopped to take a sip at a drinking fountain.

“I wouldn’t drink too much of that,” she was told by a secretary.

The secretary was alluding to the potentially high levels of lead in the water, about which the university has been warning people since last summer. Anyone who has visited UM’s campus in the last year has most likely seen the yellow signs posted on doors and near fixtures warning of elevated lead levels in the water. Recently, the signs have come down and water coolers have disappeared, begging the question: “Is the water safe?”

According to Laura Howe, assistant director for utilities and engineering for UM’s Facility Services, the answer is “yes.”

“We don’t have an overarching problem on campus,” says Howe. “We did a really in-depth sampling last winter and we have determined that [lead] is not a problem that is systemic in the water system, or even within one building.”

Howe’s department, along with Missoula engineering consultants HDR Engineering, sampled water in each of the campus’ more than 50 buildings.

“The initial lead samples were in pretty isolated fixtures,” says Michelle Johnson, project engineer at HDR.

According to Howe, the initial high lead levels were likely the result of corrosion, or from a small piece of lead that could have broken off a pipe, fixture or solder, and ended up in the sample. Howe said lead levels at a sink in a maintenance building and one in a greenhouse remain questionable (and warning signs remain up), but other than that, the water is safe. “There should be no public health risk,” Howe says.

Therefore, the water coolers have been removed.

“[The water coolers] were really an extraordinary measure to make sure that we were providing people with safe water,” says Howe. “We didn’t really know at the time.”

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