When University of Montana Facilitities Services initiated a campus-wide round of testing for lead contamination in its public water system June 21, it began conducting sampling tests in all 50 major buildings on campus—15 percent of which showed lead contamination above federal guidelines. And although the testing was “comprehensive,” says Dan Corti, director of UM’s environmental health and occupational safety department, it did not include the off-campus University Villages, which houses student families with dependent children.
The University’s decision to take over administration of its own water distribution system from Mountain Water last year triggered the testing, a condition imposed by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, says Corti. UM conducted a round of preliminary tests in October and found “elevated” levels of lead contamination, prompting the more comprehensive tests in June.
It’s “a fairly safe conclusion,” says Corti, that the water on campus had never before been tested for lead contamination. “Had [the DEQ directive] not occurred, frankly, I don’t know that anybody would have thought about it.”
“I don’t consider it any serious or substantial risk to consumers of the water at the levels we are seeing now, especially since it’s an adult population,” says Corti of the campus buildings. “Children’s absorption rates can be as high as 50 percent of lead that is ingested.” For adults, it’s “a max of maybe 10 percent.”
But because the water has never been tested in the family housing units, no one knows its quality. The oldest apartments at the Villages date back to the 1950s, and contain 567 residential units.
Ron Brunell, UM director of Residence Life, says he does not recall the water at the Villages having ever been through any rigorous examination. Brunell sees it as a concern and says it’s something “we need to look at and get tested.” However, Laura Howe, assistant director of UM’s Facilities Services, says that although the Villages are owned and operated by UM, there is no current plan to test the water at the facilities, since they aren’t part of the new University-administered campus water system, and therefore aren’t subject to state testing requirements.