UMass professor discusses lead and drinking water in lecture series

For the Gazette
Thursday, February 16, 2017

AMHERST — A University of Massachusetts professor honored this week for his water contamination research said that more than 1,000 schools in 200 Masssachusetts communities, including Amherst, have traces of lead in the water children drink. 

“We found lead just about everywhere,” said David Reckhow, a civil and environmental engineering professor at UMass, during a Feb. 8 talk about the issues of water contamination.

Reckhow recently worked with a voluntary state program called the Assistance Program for Lead in School Drinking Water to conduct the water tests in schools. In Amherst, traces of lead were found in six Amherst-Pelham Regional School district schools. More than 150 fixtures are being replaced. Many of the samples exceeded the EPA’s action level for lead, 15 parts per billion. However, after the water ran for more than 30 seconds, most taps registered below the EPA’s action level.

“The sad story is that it’s really hard to characterize (lead in school drinking water),” Reckhow said.

The state funds the tests for lead, but the budget does not allow testing for certain taps more than once, he said. Ideally, explained Reckhow, some taps should be sampled multiple times because the lead levels in a tap can fluctuate throughout the day.

“The children are at a high risk, and those are the people we want to protect from lead,” said Bob Hoyt, who worked with Reckhow on the state program.

In his talk, “Drinking Water in Crisis: Lead, Lignin and Legionella,” Reckhow said that lead and carcinogenic disinfection byproducts are two major sources of contamination in drinking water.

When disinfectants such as chlorine are used to decontaminate water sources, he added, they can leave behind harmful byproducts. DBPs are linked to up to 10,000 cases of bladder cancer in the United States per year, Reckhow said.

In addition, there is the threat of lead from pipes and fixtures leaching into the water supply.

In May, Reckhow and three UMass graduate students rented a van and drove to Flint, Michigan to sample water and attend a conference. They tested hot and cold water, from many houses.

“It was really great to be there because I had read about it, but I had never actually talked to people on the ground,” Reckhow said. “It gave us and especially the students a great perspective.”

During the lecture, a member of the crowd who was from Flint thanked Reckhow for his work there.

To prevent excessive water contamination in the short term, Reckhow suggests that water systems replace pipes and use corrosion inhibitors such as phosphate.

Following the lecture, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy presented Reckhow with the Chancellor’s Medal, the highest recognition given to campus faculty, for his work.