The students who signed up for “Chemistry for Non Science Majors” this semester at California State University, Long Beach could not have guessed the impact of their studies.
“Especially with concerns like Flint, [Michigan], with water quality issues such as that… I wanted my students to see a real-life application of what they’re learning in the classroom,” said their instructor, Elaine Bernal.
Last month, 16 of her students tested water in a drinking fountain in the McIntosh Building, one of the campus’ oldest buildings.
Their results came back positive for lead. But their testing method didn’t clearly show whether the amount of lead exceeded safe levels set by state and federal agencies.
The class gave its findings to the university. The campus did its own test of drinking fountain water in the building and found, indeed, some of the water exceeded government levels for safe amounts of lead.
“We have about 300 to 400 fountains on campus, have been turned off until we can actually implement a testing program,” said Cal State Long Beach spokeswoman Terri Carbaugh.
The university turned off drinking fountains on Monday, four days after it concluded its own test of the water. All drinking fountains, Carbaugh said, will be tested by Friday, but the results won’t be known immediately.
The aim is to find out whether the problem is isolated to some drinking fountains in the McIntosh Building or whether there is lead in drinking fountain water elsewhere on the campus.
The federal and California governments’ safe level of lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion. Carbaugh would not say how much lead the university’s preliminary testing found in the water.
In August, officials in the central office of the California State University sent a memo to all campuses reminding campuses to have a plan to address high amounts of lead in drinking water and to follow the federal government’s testing guidelines.
In the meantime the university has placed 130 water coolers around campus and has brought cases of bottled water to give out to students and staff.
Some students said the university’s action should have come sooner.
“That’s the water we would use for our cup of noodles, our coffee, we would refill our water bottles with that,” said senior Abigail Lozano-Vazquez, who spends a lot of time in the McIntosh Building after her student group, which meets in the building , moved there in January.
“So we were actually really mad.”
As for those chemistry students who tested the water, their instructor said they’re on track to ace the class.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Lozano-Vazquez's group was called El Centro. The group meets in a section of the building called El Centro. KPCC regrets the error.