Water you drinking?

Survey shows drinking water across North Campus is safe to drink


Water from fountains around campus is H2Okay, according to a Spectrum study.

Though the pH of water from some fountains fell below recommended U.S. Environmental Protection Agency levels, the water on North Campus was consistently safe to drink and free of harmful metals like lead, the study found.

The Spectrum tested water quality from 94 drinking fountains for three days across North Campus, from Alumni Arena to the Natural Sciences Complex. We tested the water for total hardness, alkalinity, pH and the presence of free chlorine, iron, copper, lead, nitrates and nitrites on Nov. 7, 9 and 11. 

All of the fountains tested –– 94 of the roughly 245 on North Campus –– had hard water, meaning it contained a lot of minerals. Hard water does not pose any health hazards and may in fact help contribute to important dietary calcium and magnesium, according to the National Research Council. Five fountains had very hard water. Seven fountains tested poorly for alkalinity and 49 fountains had a pH below the EPA-recommended level. Seven fountains contained trace amounts of chlorine.

But all of the test results still indicate safe drinking water.

A low pH sometimes indicates the presence of harmful metals but isn’t itself necessarily a sign of unsafe water, according to the Water Systems Council, a national nonprofit organization. 

We tested fountains for lead and copper, which, if in water, may “cause health problems ranging from stomach distress to brain damage,” according to the EPA. 

None of the fountains contained either metal.

Students and staff rely on water fountains across campus for a quick drink or to fill up water bottles. Fill stations are located across campus and have built-in filter indicator lights ranging from green to yellow to red. 

Students said they thought red filter statuses on a number of water fountains meant the water was bad to drink. But the statuses simply reflect when the filling station’s filter should be changed. 

The Spectrum did not find significant differences in water quality between regular fountains and the filtered, bottle fill stations, and between water from fill stations of green, yellow and red filter statuses.

The test

The Spectrum used a drinking water test kit from health company Baldwin Meadows, which contained dipsticks with nine chemical pads that change colors after reacting with compounds in drinking water. We held strips under a stream for two seconds and visually inspected one minute later. 

Most of the fountains tested showed safe and EPA-recommended levels for most testing parameters, according to our study.

But in some fountains, total alkalinity and pH, specifically, were outside the suggested limits. Twelve fountains had pHs of 6.0, which is 0.5 units lower than the lowest EPA-recommended pH. The EPA’s range is 6.5 to 8.5. 

Of the 94 fountains tested, 37 had a pH of 6.4, 0.1 unit lower than the recommended range.

Total alkalinity is the measure of water’s capacity to neutralize acid. Seven UB fountains had a total alkalinity of 0, meaning if the water was acidic, it could not be neutralized. 

“Water with a low pH can be acidic, naturally soft and corrosive. Acidic water can leach metals from pipes and fixtures, such as copper, lead and zinc,” according to the Water Systems Council.

Low pH can also damage metal pipes and cause aesthetic problems, like a metallic or sour taste, or leave blue-green stains in sinks and drains. Water with a low pH can contain metals in addition to copper, lead and zinc, according to the Water Systems Council. These metals can lead to various health problems.

In light of recent lead crises across the country in places like Flint, Michigan –– where lead in drinking water caused a public health emergency –– people nationwide are concerned about the safety of their drinking water.

Lead can enter drinking water when service pipes that contain lead corrode. This happens in locations where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that cause corrosion in pipes and fixtures, according to the EPA’s website.

Our study showed 0 parts per million of lead for each water fountain tested on campus.

What do the experts say?

Joe Raab, director of UB Environment, Health and Safety and interim director of UB Facilities, said The Spectrum’s results were to be expected and that he was glad to see that there was no detection of lead or copper in any of the samples.

Raab said EHS tested the drinking water in recent years at the campus daycare centers in response to concerns about lead in the water, as children are particularly vulnerable to lead. All the results were “below action levels of concern for lead in water,” Raab said in an email.

The other testing parameters did not surprise Raab either. He said hard water is common in the region.

Hard water is “caused by compounds of calcium and magnesium, and by a variety of other metals,” according to the United States Geological Survey. 

While most fountains tested 0 ppm for chlorine, seven of the 94 fountains tested at 0.5 ppm of the chemical. But 0.5 ppm for free chlorine is still within safe water standards.

Dr. Stephen Free, a professor in the department of biological sciences, said he was not concerned with the fountains that had traces of chlorine. He said they were low levels and not harmful to water drinkers. 

Chlorine is added to water in holding tanks at water treatment plants to kill residual bacteria that were not destroyed in the filtration step — a fact Free said he teaches in his biology of microbes course. Free explained why some fountains might have trace amounts of chlorine, while others do not. 

“That chlorine dissipates with time, so if you have a water fountain that is being used frequently, it has chlorine that hasn’t had a long time to dissipate and the water will have [trace] chlorine,” Free said. “If you have a water fountain that is being used less frequently, then you might have lower chlorine because the water has had time to sit and have the chlorine dissipate.”

Free suggested another possible explanation: the fountains weren’t all tested on the same day. 

“Some days could have higher chlorine in water coming into campus and other days the water could have a lower chlorine amount. It could be high one day and lower another day,” Free said.

Raab said UB gets its water supply from an Erie County agency and does not do any further purification of the water. The Erie County Water Authority conducts regular testing of UB’s water quality according to EPA regulations. UB receives a yearly report of the tests.

If anyone on campus has a concern about water quality, however, Raab said EHS will conduct its own water testing.

“In recent years, we only found one unit with test results that warranted concerns and this unit was replaced,” Raab said. 

Raab said there are around 245 water fountains on North Campus and 100 on South Campus of varying designs.

“There are so many different types of water fountains around campus because many were installed at different times,” Raab said. “When the buildings were first built, the project designer would often install a certain type and manufacturer based on costs and design.”

“In some areas, the drinking fountains are original to the buildings,” said Raab. “In other areas, they have been replaced.”

As fountains break and need replacements over the years, Raab said UB Facilities’ plumbing shop chooses a new unit, which has resulted in different styles of fountains across the three UB campuses, Raab said. UB Facilities typically installs the water bottle fill stations at the requests of departments.

In the past, some older fountain fixtures contained lead, according to Raab. However, the EPA issued a list of water fountains of concern and UB does not have any of these fountains.

Different fountains across North Campus include fill stations, regular fountains and in-wall fountains. UB began installing Elkay EZH2O Bottle Filling Stations about five years ago,“to meet the desires of campus students and staff who started to use reusable water bottles,” according to Raab. 

Raab also said there should be no significant differences between older and newer fountains, which The Spectrum’s results reflected. “All drinking fountains are similar in function and should be equally safe,” Raab said. 

A splash of student reactions

Students like Nicole Walawander use the fill stations to fill up water bottles. However, Walawander said she questions the fill stations that don’t have a green filter status.

“It is gross when you see that the filter status is yellow or red,” said Walawander, a junior biological sciences major. “It makes you think about the fountains with the filters compared to ones that don’t have the measurement. I would rather use a regular fountain than one with a questionable filter status. I wish UB would do more to tell us what those statuses really mean.” 

Troy Misita, a senior business administration major, said he uses UB’s fountains a lot but thinks they’re only “OK.”

“I think [the fountains] could be cleaner, but they get the job done. Although the red [filter status] on the fountains does freak me out, I’ll use [the fountain] if I have to,” Misita said. 

Misita added that he believes the filters should be changed more often, as he notices some fountains go a few days with a red status before UB changes them. 

Raab said the fill station’s filter lights change colors based on the volume of water used. Red lights, for instance, indicate a filter’s use of 3,000 gallons, or 24,000 16-ounce bottles. Yellow lights indicate a new filter should be installed soon.

“Even when the indicator light changes, the unit is still safe to drink from and water is still being filtered,” Raab said. “Red indicates that the filter has reached 100 percent of its usable life … The time that it takes to initiate a change in the indicator lights is a function of how frequently the unit is being used.”

Raab said a filter’s life depends on the water’s conditions.

“The manufacturer recommends changing the filter at least once a year or when the filter indicator turns red,” Raab said. “When the indicator light is red, the filter is no longer operating at peak efficiency and the user should report it to Facilities so the filter can be replaced promptly. However, the water is still completely safe to drink.”

The Spectrum did not find any significant differences in water quality between water from fill stations with green, yellow and red indicator lights.

Raab said UB community members can report any yellow or red indicator lights via the UB Facilities work order system online or over the phone at 716-645-2025.

Kirsten Dean is the features editor and can be reached at kirsten.dean@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @KirstenUBSpec.