New coronavirus health concern as colleges reopen: Contaminated water sitting in pipes

Jordan Nutting, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Three months ago, the COVID-19 pandemic forced universities to close their doors. With no students, faculty or staff washing their hands and drinking from water fountains, the plumbing has gone almost as unused as the buildings themselves.

That’s a problem. Stagnant water in buildings made long-vacant amid coronavirus concerns is a health risk. 

“Plumbing is meant to be used,” said Andrew Whelton, an associate professor of civil engineering at Purdue University in Indiana.

When plumbing goes unused, water sits in pipes, where the level of leached metals and harmful bacteria colonies can increase.

When students, faculty and employees return to campus and water starts flowing again, these contaminants could end up in water bottles and showerheads, adding one more health concern for campuses already scrambling to minimize exposure to COVID-19.

Water left stagnant in pipes on campuses closed by the coronavirus has school officials concerned as they scramble to reopen in the fall while minimizing exposure to COVID-19.

Universities are not alone in these concerns. But campuses are particularly vulnerable.

Behind the walls of each building, a complex network of pipes, pumps, tanks and heaters supply water to a similarly complex collection of drinking fountains, bathroom sinks, toilets, ice machines, sprinkler systems and more. Use, age and architecture all affect how water moves through the building.

Different plumbing lines are required for hard and soft water. Buildings that have 10 stories have different plumbing than those with one or two. And newer buildings may be designed with water conservation in mind.

Even the water sources may be different. The University of Iowa has its own water supply system; the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire runs off a city system.

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Because of the sheer number and variety of buildings, water management at university campuses is challenging and hinders a uniform approach to maintain water quality after extended vacancies.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released guidelines for minimizing risks in water systems for Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease. The guidelines suggest running water and making sure to clean out basins and faucets when buildings are reoccupied.

But Whelton noted that Legionnaires’ disease isn’t the only health concern. Higher copper and lead levels can show up in stagnant water and the amount of disinfectants in the water can fall, which allows other bacteria colonies to grow.

What’s more, Whelton said, there have been no studies of water quality for water that has been in pipes for months at a time, and the CDC guidelines are not tailored to specific plumbing systems, which can vary greatly.

In previous studies of how water quality changes when it sits stagnant in pipes, Whelton has looked at how three days or seven days of stagnation affects water quality. According to Whelton, whenever he and his team have done these studies, they’ve received pushback that their approach “is unrealistic” and “no drinking water system or plumbing system would ever be stagnated for more than three days.”

But then COVID-19 arrived.

Now, in the absence of evidence of how to best maintain water quality during long-term shutdowns, universities are going to have to be thoughtful about the steps they take to keep their buildings’ water safe.

And the clock is ticking. Some people are already returning to university campuses, including researchers and student athletes. Some schools are planning to open in August, and many others will open – although some in a limited fashion – by early September.

When plumbing goes unused, water sits in pipes, where the level of leached metals and harmful bacteria colonies can increase. College officials are taking that into consideration as they plan to reopen campuses in the fall, while also dealing with coronavirus concerns.

Responses vary

Every school seems to have developed its own response.

In mid-March, it became clear to University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire facilities staff that the campus was shutting down. They immediately recognized the potential for water problems, said Michael Rindo, assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations.

Day after day for the past three months, a team of workers has gone through the 33 buildings on upper and lower campus.

They flush every toilet. They run hot and cold water in the sinks. They turn on the showers in the residence halls. They run the water fountains.

And with each test, they keep their eyes and ears open for any color or smell that could be a warning.

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Mohammad Attalla, executive director of facilities and services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recalls “marathon meetings” on March 21 and 22 to plan out his department’s game plan. Twice a week, the campus’ water station staff flushes main water lines and runs all water sources inside the campus’ 507 buildings.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Meredith McGlone, a spokesperson for the university, said the school is following CDC guidelines, and restroom sinks and toilets are flushed “at least weekly.” As people return to buildings, they are recommending that people let taps run for a few minutes to clear them.

David Jackson, assistant director of facilities management at the University of Iowa, said flushing water in sinks, drinking fountains and restrooms will start in early June and will continue “approximately monthly” until building occupancy increases.

Officials from the University of Michigan and University of Minnesota-Twin Cities also indicated that regular flushing is taking place in low occupancy buildings.

The variety of university responses reflects a common refrain from the past three months.

“We’re all kind of new to that part of this,” said Andrew DeWeese, a program manager at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and University of Illinois developed their water management plans internally. McGlone at UW-Madison says the university is following CDC guidelines. At the University of Iowa, water flushing started in June, not March.

And no matter what they're doing, no one is sure it's enough. Even with twice-weekly flushing, Attalla estimates that water use at the University of Illinois has dropped by 20%.

Juggling multiple other problems

In an article published online June 16 in AWWA Water Science, Whelton and collaborators at seven other research institutions described the challenges facing building managers as they work to keep water quality safe.

In the article, Whelton laid out several recommendations:

  • Develop water management plans that are specific to each building’s unique needs.
  • Flushing is good, but remember that it’s not clear yet how much flushing is required and how often systems should be flushed.
  • Check regularly for leaks and other damages.
  • Test water quality for multiple possible contaminants.
  • Adjust plans as building occupancy changes.
  • Inform building occupants of risk and of potential changes in water quality.

All of this comes as universities juggle dozens of questions as they prepare to reopen.

Rindo said the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire has purchased fogging machines that can be used to disinfect large rooms at night after lectures.

At the University of Illinois, Attalla says the school is dropping room occupancies across campus to maintain social distancing. Campus laboratories produced 4,000 gallons of hand sanitizer that will be distributed to various departments.

At University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, water fountains in student housing have been modified so they are water-bottle-filling stations only, and the staff is considering making stairwells “one-way” to prevent students from passing one another.

"We’ve never had a summer off,” said Frank Bartlett, executive director of university housing at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “This is totally uncharted territory for us.”

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Coronavirus: Colleges reopening in fall worry for water health safety

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