Elevated lead levels in courthouse water
Lead contamination in the water at the Pitkin County Courthouse has forced health officials to shut off fountains and sinks, and install water coolers to provide drinking water for employees and visitors in the building.The elevated lead levels were confirmed Wednesday afternoon. When employees arrived for work Thursday, they found water coolers in place. A meeting of workers in the building was convened yesterday morning to advise them of the situation and answer questions, said Brian Pettet, director of public works for the county.Officials don’t know from where the lead is originating or how long it has been in the water, Pettet said.”We suspect it’s an isolated event in the courthouse, given its age, and the pipes in there are deteriorating,” he said.The stately Main Street building dates back to 1891 and some of the plumbing could be that old, Pettet said.While routine water testing in public buildings is not required, the county conducted tests in several of its buildings after receiving a complaint about metallic-tasting water in the Courthouse Plaza building next door. The only elevated lead levels, however, were found in the historic courthouse; further tests will be conducted.The standard for clean drinking water is .015 milligrams of lead per liter of water. Levels found in the drinking water at the courthouse were .05 milligrams on the garden level, .078 milligrams on the main floor and .035 milligrams on the upper level.Lead has a cumulative effect, according to Carla Block, the county’s senior environmental health specialist. It can cause problems if it is ingested over a long period of time. There are some employees in the building who have been working there for decades, Pettet noted.”We are certainly encouraging anyone, if they feel the need to get tested, to get tested,” he said.According to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Web site, adults who drink lead-tainted water over many years could develop kidney problems or high blood pressure. Lead is rarely found in source water, but enters tap water through corrosion of plumbing materials, according to the agency.”Out of order” signs, along with the universal symbol for caution, have been placed over drinking fountains in the building, which have also been turned off. In the restrooms, signs at the sinks read: “Not for drinking.”Lead in water is not harmful unless it’s ingested, according to health officials, so it’s OK to use for hand-washing.”We’ve had people ask about their pets, and we’ve told them to give bottled water to their pets,” Pettet said.Several employees in the building expressed little concern yesterday about the situation. A staffer in the district attorney’s office said she brings her own drinking water to work. “I know better,” she said.Other offices, including the assessor’s office and the clerk of courts, already had bottled water for staff use. In the courts office, former Judge Tam Scott invested in bottled water for the office, and employees have continued to buy it, said a staffer there.”I think, generally speaking here, we’re just pleased that the county is being so proactive in addressing the issue,” said one employee who asked not to be identified. “No one is panicking.”It may not be possible to pinpoint the source of the lead, according to Pettet.”The ultimate solution is to re-plumb the entire courthouse,” he said. “That would be incredibly expensive and time-consuming.”There are also filters than can be used to remove lead, but they would have to be installed on every drinking fountain and at every faucet, Pettet said.For now, the county will await the results of further testing and continue to provide bottled drinking water, he said.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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