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MIT water is generally safe to drink

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By Janice Yoo

Many MIT students worry about the quality of their drinking water, and for good reason: it often tastes bad, and its color can range from yellow to brown.

In addition, many Cambridge residents off campus received mail warnings in 1989 that cancer-causing chloroform byproducts of the chlorination/purification process exceeded the city and state health standards by 100 parts per billion (ppb).

Although the chloroform level warranted action by Cambridge officials, one representative of the city water department said that "a person would have had to drink two liters of that water every day for 70 years to have a one in 10,000 chance of contracting cancer." He noted that the chloroform level in Cambridge is down to normal.

Richard Fink, an officer at the Biohazards Assessment Office said that on a microbial level, Cambridge water has generally met city and state health standards. He attributed the brown color of Cambridge water to the presence of diatoms, a type of algae. According to Fink, this algae is not a health problem, but simply makes the water taste and look unpleasant. He added that the algal discoloration was a more regular problem two years ago than it is today.

Lead pipes are

another concern

Lead joints in Institute water pipes are another subject of concern. Lead leaches from the joints into the water traveling through it when the water reaches acidity levels of pH 5 or 6. The pH level measures the relative acidity of a substance on a scale between 0 and 14, where numbers less than 7 are acids and those greater than 7 are bases. Water, considered neutral, has a pH of 7.

MIT and other institutions around the country removed water fountains with lead tank linings and solder from their facilities three years ago. More recently, campus water coolers were tested for lead. In a test designed to simulate the worst-case scenario, water in the coolers was allowed to stand still for 48 hours.

In some coolers, the first water sample showed 50 ppb, with diminishing amounts of lead reported on subsequent tests as the standing water was flushed out and replaced with fresh water. Fifty ppb is the Environmental Protection Agency's drinking water standard for lead. These water coolers were promptly removed.

Dormitory water pipes are mostly made of copper, but lead is still used in the soldering joints of the pipes. Water standing in these pipes for more than 48 hours may still acquire very small amounts of lead.

Low levels of lead can cause learning disabilities in developing children, especially those six years old and younger. Infants between nine and 18 months are most vulnerable to the effects of lead. Alan M. Ducatman, director of the MIT Environmental Medical Service, said that it would take enormous amounts of lead to affect MIT students' health.

Ducatman suggested that if someone suspects that water has not moved through the pipes at a particular faucet or fountain for more than a weekend and a young person is going to drink the water, the water should be allowed to run for a minute to flush out the standing water. Either the MIT Biohazard Assessment Office or the MIT Industrial Hygiene Office will analyze water samples if anyone has serious questions concerning dangerous chemicals in MIT water.