The Process of Uncovering Answers
When Luisa Perez brought her collection of water samples back to the lab at UC Santa Cruz’s coastal science campus for testing in fall quarter, the last thing she expected was a positive result for lead. But after waiting the prescribed 15-30 seconds, she pulled out a golden-colored at-home test strip — indicating that she and the five other students in her group had discovered lead in their Porter A Building water fountain sample.
They weren’t the only ones. Every other group in the class found similar results from the same fountain, prompting the question:
Is there actually lead in our water?
“It was alarming. Other water sources we tested hadn’t come back [indicating] lead. How is it that all of these tests [from the same fountain] are coming out with the same result?” Perez said. “I hope I’m wrong. I hope that everything was just a big error.”
The initial discovery was made on Oct. 13 in a class project for CRSN 151C: Designing Safe and Resilient Water Systems. While officially run by Provost Sue Carter, the class was instructed by physics graduate student Carey Williams.
Six months after the initial lead detection from at-home tests, UCSC administration acknowledged CRSN 151C’s findings in a campuswide email. On April 18, after testing the water at an accredited Bay Area lab, they confirmed that the water from the Porter A fountain is negative for lead and safe to drink.
The administration also decided to test the fountain in the lobby of East Field House out of “an abundance of caution,” after hearing a student group in CRSN 151C had a positive test there.
Even with the reassuring results, the university’s reluctance to disclose full test results to the public without jumping through legal loopholes has eroded some students’ trust in the administration.
“They just kind of made their own charts and put that up, but I want to see the real report the lab gave them,” Perez said. “Students needed them to release the reports, to make them public.”
City on a Hill Press (CHP) initially requested the entire copy of the school’s testing results and the name of the lab that conducted the tests, but administrators were unwilling to share them without CHP submitting a California Public Records Act (CPRA) request.
CHP asked Assistant Vice Chancellor of University Relations Scott Hernandez-Jason why the administration decided not to publish the full report.
“The reports themselves, I have not seen them but they are scientific reports and if you’re not an expert in that, they’re not the easiest to read,” Hernandez-Jason replied. “Part of [not releasing the reports] is just trying to be as clear and simple for our audience and let them know what information is important without creating additional confusion.”
The administration used Bay Area-based environmental testing lab McCampbell Analytical, Inc. to test the water quality of the fountains in Porter A Building and the East Field House lobby. According to the full lab report obtained by CHP through its CPRA, the lab used a mass spectrometry test, which can only detect lead levels at or above 0.5 μg/L.
View the full CPRA obtained by City on a Hill Press here. (Mobile users can double click the blue hyperlink to open the document.)
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe blood level of lead in children.
Without a more sensitive test, it’s impossible to know whether there might have been lead levels between 0 μg/L and 0.5 μg/L in the water tested by McCampbell.
More sensitive tests do exist though, according to Professor Don Smith of UCSC’s microbiology and toxicology department.
“The risk from lead exposure at drinking levels below 0.5 μg/L is minimal than other sources of exposure that a child [might encounter],” Professor Smith said. “That does not mean that it’s negligible and we can ignore it, but compared to other things in the environment it would be a relatively minimal exposure.”
Why did it take six months?
When CHP asked Hernandez-Jason about the six-month gap between the initial discovery and first campus announcement, he attributed it to a lack of information.
“My understanding is we reached out to students and were trying to get the precise location and did not hear back,” Hernandez-Jason said. “[By] not knowing the precise location, there’s a lot of water sources on campus so it would have been difficult [proceeding] without that information.”
According to Hernandez-Jason, UCSC administration took action as soon as the precise location was determined on April 13. The water for the particular fountain in Porter A Building was shut off on April 14, and the campus-wide public announcement was sent the following day.
On April 11, four days before the campus- wide announcement, Luisa Perez launched a Change.org petition that announced the positive lead tests from October and demanded the university conduct further testing. As of publishing, the petition has since garnered 640 signatures. Simultaneously, she began circulating a Google form inviting students to gather in the Namaste Lounge on April 19 to discuss campus drinking water.
Both links drew attention on several social media platforms, even appearing on the Discord server for prospective incoming students.
Perez thinks the university only released a public statement because of the attention her petition garnered.
“It’s literally because I had spread the word so much,” Perez said. “It took one day of me making that petition for them to finally respond after months of nothing.”
Speaking to CHP, Ed Reiskin, Vice Chancellor of Finance, Operations, and Administration, said the decision to release a statement came from wanting to remain transparent and communicative with the campus community.
“Communication is a critical part of public health,” Reiskin said. “We wanted to share it as quickly as we could, just to let folks know that we’re on it.”
While both Hernandez-Jason and Reiskin say they were unaware of the situation before
April, Carey Williams, TA of CRSN 151C, said he called the Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) department “well before March.”
An email chain initiated on March 29, five months after the initial date of testing, was shared with CHP and contains messaging which corroborates that the office did receive a call reporting lead detection, but does not specify the content of this report or the precise date on which it occurred.
In the exchange, several faculty members, including Sue Carter, Rachel Carson College provost, Kristen Kusic Heady, ecology and evolutionary biology lecturer, and Tamara Ball, Director of Experiential Learning, all inquired about the lack of action and response from the EH&S department.
In response to their concern, Williams, who is also in the chain, reiterated that he already reported the issue.
“I did my due diligence and reported that we had found lead via chemical indicator test strips, reminded them that any amount is dangerous, and asked [EH&S] to investigate,” wrote Williams in the email chain. “However it seemed like they were not going to do anything without further impetus.”
Justin Delemus and Courtney Trask of the EH&S department replied to the chain requesting more information about where lead was detected, the testing protocols used, and the exact levels found.
In addition to providing information, individuals in the chain responded by pushing for the entirety of Porter dorms to be tested and urging communication of potential lead contamination with the campus community immediately.
“It would make sense for there to be transparency and a warning message notifying students immediately of a possible hazard until further notice,” replied Perez in the chain.
On April 15, the first campus announcement was released, signed by Reiskin.
CHP reached out to Courtney Trask and Justin Delemus of the EH&S department for comment, but all requests were redirected to Hernandez-Jason.
An interview was scheduled with Lisa Wisser, the director of the EH&S department, along with Hernandez-Jason, but she did not attend, citing personal reasons.
The Health Effects of Lead
Perez did not realize how detrimental lead was to human health until she started doing her own research. After understanding the potential effects of lead in campus water, she felt driven to push for answers from the university and ensure the safety of those living on campus. Part of that drive came from personal experience.
“My dad passed away a year ago from an autoimmune disease. A lot of the stuff I was researching mentioned that lead can be one of the causes for a lot of health issues, including autoimmune diseases,” Perez said. “It really started to hit home and I just couldn’t imagine students drinking the water here on campus without knowing they could end up suffering consequences in the future and never know the cause.”
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, heavy metals such as lead can result in autoimmune diseases, infectious diseases and cancer.
The campuswide email on April 15 prompted some on-campus residents to check their own faucets for contaminants. According to the email chain acquired by CHP, in the days that followed, several positive at-home tests were then reported to the university. Tamara Ball revealed that her husband, a senior campus maintenance worker, received several reports of positive at-home lead tests in Family Student Housing (FSH).
FSH houses young children and infants, who are acutely vulnerable to the dangers of lead exposure. According to an article published by Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, lead accumulates in children’s bloodstream easier, and they absorb a higher percentage of lead through their GI tract, which puts children under six at high risk of brain damage. Even low levels of exposure can damage a child’s central and peripheral nervous system, cause impaired formation and function of blood cells, and increase the possibility for learning disabilities such as low attention span and heightened antisocial behavior.
According to Hernandez-Jason, a test was conducted in FSH. The results of this test were not in the comprehensive lab report CHP received, nor were they published on the EH&S department website where the Porter A Building and East Field House test results were posted.
“A drinking water sample was collected in a FSH residence at the request of the occupant. This testing was for a personal residence, rather than a public drinking water location. The results of the testing were shared directly with the occupant, and no further action was either required or requested based on the results,” Hernandez- Jason said in an email response to CHP about the matter.
CHP tried contacting Tamara Ball, who mentioned the positive lead tests from FSH
in the email chain, but received no response.
Students’ Confidence in the Quality of Their Drinking Water Remains Strained
On April 25, Reiskin released a statement announcing an annual testing program to check the quality of campus water.
“The testing program will test a different sample of potable water outlets across campus each year,” Hernandez-Jason said in an email to CHP.
Despite the announcement, students from CRSN 151C are still concerned with the current quality of water on campus.
Back in the fall in CRSN 151C, Ilyaas Arsala chose to test the water fountain in Porter building A on his own floor as a sample because the water always tasted strange to him. Even after the school’s actions to rectify the situation, Arsala remains skeptical.
“Honestly, I still don’t feel safe drinking water on campus. I either refill my Brita, or I have a Camelbak hydration pack that I will only use water from the water bottle refill stations because I am just hoping that those are better filtered,” Arsala said. “For my own mental peace, I try to avoid the water fountain.”
Students’ confidence in the quality of their drinking water remains strained, especially as more at-home lead detection reports have rolled in since the campuswide email on April 18.
Emily Treece, another student enrolled in CRSN 151C in the fall, said she continues to avoid water fountains as much as she can, and hopes her Brita is somewhat trustworthy.
“It concerns me how quickly the issue was swept under the rug. To me, administration is like, ‘we don’t want this mess on our hands,’” Treece said. “Having water quality issues is a huge deal, especially for such a large campus. I would have appreciated it if the campus tested different water sources [in addition to the ones they did].”
Attached is a visual timeline of the process: