Carolyn Elfland gets the lead out

Lead in drinking water has been a problem since the days of the Roman Empire. This heavy metal can harm the nervous system and brain development, and is especially dangerous for pregnant women, infants and children.

But it’s a problem that most considered solved decades ago when lead solder and lead pipes were outlawed.

So imagine the surprise of Carolyn Elfland, associate vice chancellor for campus services, when testing revealed lead in the drinking water of the newly opened Caudill Laboratories in 2007.

“People have a right to expect that drinking water in brand new buildings will not be contaminated by lead,” Elfland said.

To find the cause, Elfland needed an expert, quickly. Faculty in Environmental Sciences and Engineering suggested Marc Edwards, the Charles Lunsford Professor of Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech.

The UNC-Virginia Tech team determined that lead was leaching from the new brass plumbing fixtures. The Orange Water and Sewer Authority water was more corrosive than the water used to test and certify the fixtures. But it wasn’t the water supply that concerned Elfland; it was the “lead-free” plumbing devices that could legally contain up to 8 percent lead.

The only solution was to flush water through the building’s plumbing system equal to six months of normal use, and then test it for safety. New and renovated buildings with new plumbing continue to go through this same process. “Building owners should not have to go the effort and expense UNC does to ensure that expectation is met,” she said “In my opinion, this is a major regulatory failure.”

Later, when two stubborn water fountains in Genetic Medicine kept yielding incredible amounts of lead even after the new flushing process, detective work by one of Edwards’ post-doctoral fellows and UNC plumbers revealed that the lead was leaching from valves farther up the line – valves that later were found to meet the 8 percent limit overall but had as much as 18 percent lead by weight on the inner surfaces contacting the drinking water. To determine how long the leaching would continue, Elfland set up an experiment in her South Building office and the nearby kitchen, with help from Edwards.

For weeks, Elfland squirted tap water into vials containing pieces of the valves. Then she analyzed the results and prepared a paper that went through the peer-review process. The research was published in the November issue of the Journal of the American Water Works Association. Elfland is the first author of the paper, with collaboration by Edwards.

It’s a bit unusual for a University administrator to do this kind of research, but it doesn’t seem odd for those who know Elfland.

“She has an administrator’s organizational skills, a scientist’s curiosity and an engineer’s problem-solving ability,” Edwards said. “Once she has set her mind on solving a problem, there is no stopping her.”

More about the research.