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Forbes building water still tainted

By Sean McLachlan
Arizona Summer Wildcat
July 28, 1999
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Scott Andrew Taras
Arizona Summer Wildcat

A sign posted in the Forbes building warns students that drinking water has been tainted with dangerous bacteria. UA officials brought in water coolers and closed restrooms after discovering the contamination on July 19.

Arizona Summer Wildcat

While McKale Center's water is now free of hazardous bacteria, water at the Forbes building remained contaminated yesterday after efforts to clean the building's pipes failed.

The problem was detected July 19th when water at the Forbes building, 1140 E. South Campus Dr., and the McKale Memorial Center, 1721 E. Enke Dr., tested positive for coliform bacteria.

Over the weekend, UA Facilities Management flushed the pipes of both buildings with chlorine in an attempt to kill the bacteria.

Test results released yesterday showed that McKale Center was bacteria-free, but Forbes remains "heavily contaminated," University of Arizona spokeswoman Sharon Kha stated in a release.

Both buildings tested clean two weeks earlier, Kha said.

There have been no reported illnesses related to water impurities at the two buildings. University officials placed notices at both buildings and brought in water coolers to replace drinking fountains.

"Coliform bacteria are a group of bacteria normally associated with animal intestines," said Randy Ryan, research specialist in the Plant Sciences department.

Human and animal feces contain coliform bacteria, he said.

E. coli and salmonella are two of the many species of coliform bacteria. The test the university conducted does not determine which variety is present, Ryan said.

Coliforms may cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, vomiting, jaundice, headache and fatigue.

The majority of UA buildings are supplied directly from six wells that dip into the Tucson aquifer. Both Forbes and McKale are supplied with the well water.

University well water is not treated for bacteria or other contamination, Kha said.

Tucson Water, the municipal office in charge of providing water to the city's 600,000 inhabitants, treats aquifer water with chlorine before sending it out to homes.

"Chlorine is added to make it safe to drink in terms of bacteria," said David Schodroski, customer satisfaction advocate for Tucson Water.

Coliform bacteria is usually not found underground, but can be spread by insects and fecal matter to the water system, he said.

"There may be microorganisms that can exist in the aquifer, but a lot of the biological material is in the distribution system," he said.

Environmental scientist Mohsen Belyani, supervisor of monitoring for Tucson Water, agreed, "Groundwater is a lot more pure than surface water."

Belyani noted that the law does not require chlorinating of groundwater.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality both require that there be no coliform bacteria in drinking water, however.

All of the university wells are tested for bacteria twice a month. In addition, 80 samples are taken from the approximately 100 campus buildings each month, said Facilities Management Director Albert Tarcola.

Laboratory buildings and buildings used by large numbers of students are tested most often, he said.

University officials said they do not know how the bacteria got into the pipes, but have a few theories.

Kha said that the wells have tested clean, so the problem lies with the pipes. She said a misconnection in the buildings' piping could be the cause, or backflow from a tainted source.

Ryan also pointed out the same two possibilities.

The Forbes building, which was erected in 1915, still has much of its original plumbing. The old pipes do not include backflow protection and some of it may also include lead seals, he said.

To curb backflow, Ryan went through the building pulling hoses off taps. Some of the hoses had been left in stagnant water and could act as siphons, allowing backflow into the pipe system, he said.

New pipes that have been added piecemeal over the years may cause problems as well. Plumbers are required to treat a new pipe with bleach to make sure it's sterile.

"Sometimes they do it, sometimes they don't," Ryan said.

Late yesterday afternoon, university personnel injected more chlorine into the pipes at the Forbes building. It will remain there until it is flushed out tomorrow. The water will then be retested.

Results of the new tests should be available Friday.