Q&A: Memorial University closure July 31, 2015

1. Why was the university closed on Friday, July 31?

Memorial is committed to providing an adequate supply of wholesome drinking water, as required by the NL Occupational Health and Safety regulations which state that we should: “provide and maintain at suitable points conveniently accessible to all workers, an adequate supply of wholesome drinking water from a public main or other source approved by the appropriate health authority.” (http://www.assembly.nl.ca/Legislation/sr/Regulations/rc120005.htm#66_).

Recent water quality tests indicated higher than acceptable levels of lead in two buildings on the St. John’s campus. Out of an abundance of caution, the university decided to close on Friday, July 31, to allow time for further water testing and to source alternative sources of water for the university community.

2. Why were you able to reopen on Sunday, Aug. 2?

Buildings were reopened based on one of three criteria. Individual buildings have either had water quality test results confirming there is no issue with lead in their water supply; or we have retrofitted designated filtered chilling stations with additional filters designed for lead removal; or we have designated supplies of bottled water for faculty, staff, students and visitors to use while testing continues. There is signage in each building with instructions regarding drinking water locations. 

3. Where are the locations for safe drinking water?

There is signage in each building directing individuals to drinking water locations. For a full list, http://www.mun.ca/vpc/water-location.php.

4. How was the issue discovered? When?

The university does random testing to determine the quality of the campus water supply. The issue was discovered late Wednesday, July 29, as part of this random testing process; when results were received steps were taken to analyze and investigate further, alert the university community and develop an action plan to respond to the issue.

5. Why did you close the entire campus?

The campus was closed out of an abundance of caution. When test results showed higher than acceptable levels of lead in two buildings, the decision was made to close all buildings to allow time for more testing and to source and provide an adequate supply of clean drinking water, which we have now done.

6. When was the water last tested?

This information is not available at this time. The university is attempting to gather the data and will make the information available as soon as possible.

7. Where is the water currently being tested?

The water samples are being analyzed by Maxxam Analytical Laboratory, an accredited testing lab based in Nova Scotia. This is the closest available accredited testing facility available.

8. How long will it take to complete the tests on the rest of the buildings?

Testing began immediately on all university facilities and is ongoing. All 50 buildings on campus are being tested, with three testing sites at each building. More than 500 samples have been taken and sent to Nova Scotia for testing at an accredited testing lab. We anticipate that we will get results of those tests over the next few days.

9. How will the university address this problem?

The university is currently assessing the circumstances giving rise to the test results generated on July 29. When the university has completed its assessment, it will be in a position to determine the best solution to address this problem.

10. If I’ve been drinking this water, what is the risk to me?

It’s important to understand what ‘maximum acceptable concentration’ means in terms of health outcomes. The Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines define the maximum acceptable concentration as 10 micrograms/litre.

According to Health Canada, "the guideline for drinking water was established to be protective of the most vulnerable population, children. Consuming water over the course of a lifetime (i.e., 70 years) with lead levels at or near the guideline value is considered to be protective of human health."

Because the guideline is based on chronic effects, it is intended to apply to average concentrations in water consumed for extended periods. According to Dr. David Allison, the chief medical officer of health for the province, consuming at a higher level for a shorter period has no long-term health effect. Consuming water above the maximum acceptable limit does not mean that a person will become ill.

11. What about the Childcare Centre?

The Childcare Centre has been given priority for water testing. In the meantime bottled water is currently being provided for use at that facility.

12. Are the filtered water stations safe to drink?

Yes. The university has installed filters designed to remove lead on existing chilled water stations. Signage has been posted on the water stations that have this filter and are okay to use. Individuals should bring reusable bottles to fill for their personal use.

13. Is the water safe for hand washing, bathing, dish washing and teeth brushing?

Yes. According to Dr. David Allison, medical officer of health for the province, water with a lead concentration higher than the maximum acceptable concentration is safe to use for handwashing, dish washing, bathing and other activities. However, it should not be consumed until it is confirmed safe to do so. This means that bottled water or lead-filtered water should be used for teeth brushing and drinking (this includes using water to make tea/coffee or to make ice).

14. Is food prepared on campus safe to eat?

Yes, food prepared on campus is safe to eat. Aramark and food vendors in the university centre are using bottled water to prepare food.

15. Has the Marine Institute been tested?

The Marine Institute water sources will be tested next week. At this time there is no identified concern as the Marine Institute operates from a different water main from the main St. John’s campus.

16. Why were there still some events happening on campus this weekend?

Memorial serves as the venue for many events hosted by external stakeholders. When this issue was discovered, event hosts were notified and asked to make a decision based on the requirements of that event. In some instances, events were moved to alternate locations. In others, an adequate supply of bottled water was arranged.

17. Is this a problem with the city water supply?

City of St. John’s officials have advised they undertake regular testing of the city water supply. It is tested throughout the year and there have been no identified issues related to lead.

18. The Memorial facilities in the Health Sciences Centre were closed. Was the hospital affected?

Memorial alerted Eastern Health to the findings of the university’s initial water quality testing. Eastern Health has its own water quality testing protocol and there have been no identified issues related to lead. The decision to close Memorial facilities at the Health Sciences Centre was made out of an abundance of caution.

19. Why does Memorial test its water?

The university undertakes random water quality testing as part of its ongoing commitment to the health and wellbeing of the university community.