Lead in Drinking Water FAQ

How is Western currently addressing lead in drinking water?

While there is no federal law requiring universities to test their drinking water. Western determined it in the best interest of the campus community to test priority sites on campus.In the summer of 2019, Western’s Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) department commenced sampling of drinking water sources for lead concentration.  Over 900 locations have been sampled thus far.  Testing was interrupted by the pandemic. EHS will resume testing in November, 2021 and the goal is now to complete sampling in the winter of 2021-22.  Please refer to the Drinking Water Management Plan for more information on sampling locations.  The summary of the results are as follows:

  • Approximately 94% of sample results are below the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) of lead. 
  • Mitigation action steps for sources at or above 15 ppb depend on location
  • For a comprehensive list of locations tested in 2019-20 click here.  Sample results are in mg/L.  To convert to ppb, multiple figure by 1000.

Mitigation steps are taken to reduce the lead content in drinking water where elevated sample results have been observed. These steps can range from implementing a flushing program to help reduce lead levels that may increase while fixtures are not in use, cleaning aerators regularly, removing the fixture from service completely, replacing the fixture or much more complicated plumbing fixes.  Fixtures where initial samples have produced elevated results are not returned to service for drinking purposes until confirmation samples have produced a result that is less than EPA recommended levels.

What actions will Western take if lead levels are found to be high?  

Any drinking water locations that are found to have equal to or over the action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) of lead in the sample will be signed to avoid drinking from that location.  The fixtures where possible, will be replaced or they will be put out of service.  If a fixture is replaced, confirmatory samples will be taken.  If confirmation sample results are elevated, location will be signed accordingly until mitigation actions succeed.

Can I shower or wash dishes in areas that tested above 15 ppb?

Yes. Bathing, showering, or doing dishes should be safe even if the water contains lead over EPA's action level.  Human skin does not absorb lead in water. This information applies to most situations and to a large majority of the population, but individual circumstances may vary.

Why is there a 15 parts per billion (ppb) allowable amount of lead in drinking water?

This is the level that has been shown to affect the general population health wise if consumed regularly and is called the action level.  By publishing both a maximum contaminant level goal of 0 ppb and an action level of 15 ppb the EPA simultaneously acknowledges that even the low concentration of 15 ppb could potentially be harmful to sensitive populations such as; individuals who are immunocompromised, young children, and the elderly. 

The action level means that if lead levels at or above this amount are found, it is required by the EPA for building owners to make changes in a plumbing system in order to reduce the amount of lead in drinking water.  These changes could include replacing faucet fixtures or removing the drinking water source.

I have concerns about my health and lead, who can I talk to?

If you are concerned about your personal exposure and the affects of lead to your health please contact your regular healthcare provider.   

EPA has also published multiple outreach documents describing the hazards of lead in drinking water and precautions that can be taken.  More information can be found online:  https://www.epa.gov/lead/protect-your-family-exposures-lead

How often will testing be done?

Testing will be done every 5 years to monitor lead levels in drinking water sources.  Once a building is renovated and the plumbing/fixtures are upgraded, confirmation samples will be taken to ensure the levels are below the drinking water action levels and then the building will be removed from the Drinking Water Management Program. 

Why hasn’t Western retested for lead before now?

Since 2008, our first lead sampling endeavor, there have been few major infrastructure changes at the University which could affect the water quality.  Combined with the fact that Bellingham's water sampling results have shown no issues in the 12 years which would advance the corrosion of any city or university plumbing the water quality at Western is thought to have remained stable during this time. We are now testing drinking water sources on campus to confirm this.

I've heard that some of our buildings have high levels of lead and that I shouldn't drink the water, is this true? 

If a building was included in our first round of testing and is a typical drinking water source, such as water fountains, kitchen sinks, etc., the water is drinkable.  As mentioned previously the main source of lead in drinking water at Western is due to the plumbing and fixtures.  Drinking water sources that were found above the action level in 2008 were remediated or removed.   Other water locations such as bathroom sinks, were not tested unless it was identified as the only source of drinking water on a floor of a residence hall. A map and summary of previous sampling results can be be found here.

These locations are not considered common drinking water sources.  It is not recommended to draw drinking water from any bathroom, classroom or laboratory water source. We advise folks to draw drinking water from available hydration stations, water fountains, or kitchen sinks. 

If a bathroom is the only available potable water in your area please contact EHS. 

Where can I get more information about lead in drinking water and it's effects on a person's health?

Centers for Disease Control: https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead

Environmental Protection Agency: https://www.epa.gov/lead

WA State: https://www.doh.wa.gov/CommunityandEnvironment/DrinkingWater/Contaminants/Lead

City of Bellingham: https://www.cob.org/services/environment/lake-whatcom/Pages/water-quality-monitoring.aspx

My building was tested in 2008. Will it be retested for lead?

Previously tested drinking water sources will be retested as part of the Drinking Water Management Plan, but are not first priority.  The new sample collection and analysis project is expected to be completed by June 2020.  

Why aren’t we testing buildings that have been recently constructed (2011 - present)? 

The City of Bellingham is considered to possess some of the cleanest drinking water in the nation.  The City of Bellingham is required by the EPA to provide annual water quality reports.  These are available on their website. https://www.cob.org/services/environment/lake-whatcom/pages/water-quality.aspx

The primary source of lead in the drinking water at Western is due to the advanced age of our plumbing, pipes, and fixtures.  Old plumbing components were often made of or contained lead which can leach into drinking water as the materials corrode.  In 1988 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implemented a lead ban on new plumbing and plumbing repairs, but lead was still used in pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures.  In 2011, the EPA enhanced protections and essentially eliminated lead the remaining sources of lead for all plumbing, so newer buildings are not expected to have lead components in the pipes and fixtures.

What is the Drinking Water Management Program?

While there is no federal law requiring universities to test their drinking water, Western has determined it in the best interest of the campus community to prioritize and test drinking water sites on campus.  EHS will test the campus’ drinking water using EPA-recommended best practices

Current monitoring efforts will focus on previously un-sampled drinking water sources in the oldest buildings which serve the youngest groups on campus.