Learning from “leadgate”

Memorial University’s decision to close when faced with the possibility of lead in its drinking water was entirely sound. Now that the immediate risks have been addressed, what can MUN officials and the rest of us learn from the apparent crisis?

UPDATE: Since this article was published Memorial University announced that further testing revealed “higher than acceptable” levels of lead in water available for consumption in the Queen Elizabeth II Library and the Biotechnology building. “Further investigation and testing will be required before consumption restrictions for those buildings are changed,” the university said in an Aug. 11 news release.

Imagine you’ve been attending MUN for several years and are six months pregnant. How would you have felt on the evening of July 30, when Memorial announced that the entire main campus was being closed because water quality tests “indicated higher than acceptable levels of lead in the water supply” in the building where you spend most of your time?

Attributing the decision to an “overabundance of caution,” the university has been struggling with several challenges ever since.

Safety first 

The first and most important has been to figure out why some readings were so high and to ensure that the university’s students, workers and—most vitally, given the particular dangers lead poses to children—daycare, have access to a safe water supply.

On this issue, the university has fared well. It now appears the high lead levels were an artifact of improper testing: some of the initial samples were taken from unfiltered industrial pipes at the entry points to buildings, where sediment was likely to be present. Properly collected samples at points of consumption have so far produced readings that meet Health Canada’s guidelines.

In short, while high point-of-entry readings and the failure to sample the water correctly in the first place remain a concern, the more recent results indicate the university’s drinking water supply is currently safe. In buildings where point-of-consumption samples have yet to be tested, MUN is providing bottled water for drinking.

These are sensible measures.

So too was the decision to close at the first sign that water might pose a health hazard — much as we would expect if some other hazard suddenly emerged on campus.

It didn’t have to get to this

But if it turns out there is no reason to panic about lead exposure via the existing water supply, why did this issue hit the university like a bolt from the blue?

Provincial legislation requires employers to provide “an adequate supply of wholesome drinking water from a public main or other source approved by the appropriate health authority.” So we might expect the university to have established a comprehensive programme of water testing to assure people that the water they are drinking is in fact “wholesome.”

Up to now, its protocol has been to test water only randomly or when someone requested it, and since lead is colourless, odourless and tasteless, why would anyone request a test for lead unless they were already experiencing suspicious symptoms?

In fact, the university admits that the only available data comes from the recent analyses because it has not routinely tested its water supply. So, no one knows whether water they drank five years ago was safe. Which is strange, because MUN has had several previous opportunities to address this issue proactively.

File photo.
Memorial University. File photo.

First off, the university has been alerted repeatedly to possible problems with drinking water. MUN started providing my own building, Queen’s College, with bottled water more than two years ago because tests done at the request of a staff member returned questionable results (the most recent analyses, of tap water at least, are reassuring). St. John’s College has been getting bottled water for much longer, for the same reasons. And people working in other areas of the university tell me they have raised similar questions over recent years.

Why then did MUN not conduct water-quality tests across campus, particularly in older buildings that are more likely to have problems?

Second, largely due to pressure from students, Memorial committed to eliminating the sale of bottled water on campus in 2009. This policy is laudable. The bottled water industry, vastly profitable to such corporations as Coca Cola and PepsiCo, causes significant human and environmental harm.

Very sensibly, MUN then installed chilled water stations as an alternative to commercial water sales. But why not test the water for contaminants and fit the new fountains out with an appropriate filtering system at the same time? Presumably, the university assumed that because the City of St. John’s tests its water regularly, MUN’s water would also be safe — even though water pipes within the buildings themselves are likely sources of lead and even though the university had already been alerted to problems in other parts of campus.

These are specific examples. What general lessons might the university, and the rest of us, learn from its recent difficulties?

Health and safety should be routine, not crisis-driven 

“Leadgate” has a silver lining: the university now plans to implement a systematic approach to water testing. It has also retrofitted its chilled water stations with filters to remove toxic metals.

But water quality is not the only environmental health issue on campus. Students, staff and faculty have become habituated to navigating around duct tape and tarps erected as a measure to contain asbestos.

While this may look like a MacGyver type stopgap, at least the university has an asbestos management protocol. But asbestos, while deadly serious, is not the only air quality concern at MUN.

 We can hope that the university will now adopt the same proactive approach to air monitoring as it has promised for water.

We can hope that the university will now adopt the same proactive approach to air monitoring as it has promised for water.

Experience suggests that these lessons sink in slowly, however.

In 2012, Queen’s College, where my department is located, underwent significant renovations that started with bashing the concrete exterior off the building — a process so intense that it cracked the exterior wall of my neighbour’s office enough to let daylight in.

Significant dust — contents unknown — was generated in the process. Those working in the building complained repeatedly of sore throats, coughs, headaches and other symptoms. As documented in a third party report, people felt that university officials did not take their health concerns seriously. Indeed, not until the university finally conducted tests and found silica in surface dust were we given an alternative workspace.

When people feel their legitimate concerns are dismissed, as they did in Queen’s College, they naturally become mistrustful of authority. We might expect university leaders to have learned from that mistake as they approach other obvious environmental health problems.

Instead, my sense is that skepticism about whether the university can be trusted on basic issues of health and safety is increasingly widespread. Part of the problem lies in the university’s intensified focus on “strategic marketing” and public relations activities — a reflection, as Gaye Thuchman notes in Wannabe U, of the corporatization of higher education.

Health and safety is a matter for substance, not spin doctoring 

Nothing infuriates a person worried about silica exposure at work quite like being told, as we were during “I ♥ MUNdays” 2012, MUN’s highschool-style spirit week, to go to the Field House and “put in a few laps around the track” in aid of the university’s “Health Challenge.”

More recently, it has not helped that so many of those speaking to the lead issue work in PR rather than health and safety or senior administration. Vice President (Finance) Kent Decker is an exception. Other university leaders have been conspicuous by their absence, as has been noted repeatedly in online comments and conversations.

Nor does it help to tell people that it’s not in their interest to know too much, as did MUN’s Acting Director of Public Affairs on Aug. 4. Similarly, if Eastern Health’s David Allison was offering sound public health wisdom when he told people that, even if they had been exposed to lead via drinking water at MUN, they were at negligible risk for lead poisoning, by then many were primed to think he was pooh-poohing legitimate health worries.

Where to next? 

The final lesson to take from this entire affair applies well beyond MUN: it is for us all to become more vigilant about environmental health hazards where we live, work and send our children to study. These range from mould and pesticides to spoiled or improperly prepared cafeteria food and contaminated well water.

Photo by Kurt Korneski.
Holes in walls covered by plastic and tape are not an uncommon sight in buildings at MUN where asbestos abatement work has been done. Photo by Kurt Korneski.

As for the university, it did the right thing by closing when it looked like there might be a material threat to people’s health. But a different approach would have forestalled the whole crisis and all the anxiety that went with it.

MUN now needs to restore confidence that it is being run by responsible stewards of a major public institution. Students, staff and faculty want to feel secure that they are not being put in harm’s way simply by going to school or work.

The implementation of a system of regular water quality testing is a strong start. Let’s hope it is the harbinger of a broader cultural shift — one where no one doubts that basic issues of health and safety, teaching and research, have priority over expensive vanity projects or branding exercises.

The alternative is that the university may find an adaptation of Tom Lehrer’s Pollution becoming an unofficial school song: “If you attend the university, you will find it very pretty. Just two things of which you must beware: don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air.”

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