Tests show McAlister, Old Main fountains contain “dangerously acidic” water

by Julia Kramer, Payton Turner, Taylor Fulgham, Waid Rainey & Lauren Swaim
Online Editor, Staff Writers & Photo Editor


(Updated Nov. 9, 2016) After this story’s publication, Conway Corporation sent a lab technician to campus with a portable pH meter to take readings of the drinking water on campus. Manager of Marketing and Public Relations at Conway Corporation Crystal Kemp contacted The Echo on Nov. 3 and shared the results. The lab technician found all of the sites tested to have pH levels between 6.6 and 6.9, which meet Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standards. 

In an effort to determine the safety of the water students drink every day, 13 fountains in nine campus buildings were tested for pH levels, alkalinity, iron, copper, nitrate, nitrite, chlorine and hardness. The tests were color-coated strips that had to be dipped or swished around in samples of the water fountain water and then compared to the color chart included with the strips. The tests reported good levels of the above chemicals and characteristics, except pH levels.

The pH levels in the buildings varied greatly.

Art history instructor Melisa Quesenberry, who spends the majority of her work day in McAlister, said she prefers to bring water from home or buy a bottle from the Student Center if necessary.

“It [the McAlister water]smells funny and it’s cloudy sometimes,” she said. “Sometimes I’m in the middle of class and I’ve just refilled a bottle of water at the fountain and I can’t even drink the water because it just smells foul.”

Quesenberry said the building had terrible water problems over the summer.

“There was a weird, white sort of sediment just kind of in the water,” she said.

Quesenberry said her main concern is that students might be unaware of the potential water problems, especially pregnant or sick students. She said the water was shut off in the building during parts of the 2016 May Intersession and one of her students was pregnant and suffering from the water shortage.

“That was just really problematic,” Quesenberry said. “She was having a hard time because there wasn’t anywhere to go to the bathroom in the building. We have this like three hour class every day of the week and no water, no bathroom facilities, it was bad.”

Quesenberry said there were a few days during that time where the water was turned off completely.

Assistant Physical Plant Director Russ Hooper said he did not recall shutting off the water in McAlister during that time and said if the Physical Plant ever shuts off the water, it’s only for maintenance and lasts a few hours, at most.

Conway’s water flows through 390 miles of piping, 6,100 valves and 2,600 fire hydrants in town, according to Conway Corporation. The water comes from the 28,900 acre Brewer Lake and is treated at the Roger Q. Mills Water Treatment Plant, which holds 24 million gallons each day.

According to an NPR article from April 2016, most water is treated in the same four steps: coagulation and flocculation, sedimentation, filtration and disinfection. In the first step, added chemicals mix with dirt and dissolved particles already in the water, creating large particles called floc.

In the second step, the floc falls to the bottom of the water tank, due to its weight. In the filtration step, the water flows through a sand, gravel and charcoal filter that removes any particles that should not be present in drinking water, including “dust, parasites, bacteria, viruses and chemicals.”

Lastly, the chlorine is added to the filtered water to kill parasites, bacteria, viruses and other harmful substances.

UCA does not filter any of the water that flows through the campus pipes.

“Water comes from Conway Corp as is,” Hooper said. “The only filters that we have are on the water fountains, on the bottle fillers, that’s it.”

The filters on the fountains are microbe filters, filtering out anything in the water that is bigger than a microbe.

According to a 2013 article by that highlighted abnormal pH levels in water, negative health effects are highest in pH extremes.

“Drinking water with an elevated pH above 11 can cause skin, eye and mucous membrane irritation,” according to a study by the World Health Organization ( WHO). “On the opposite end of the scale, pH values below 4 also cause irritation due to the corrosive effects of low pH levels.”

The abnormal pH levels in UCA’s drinking water fell under the low pH levels, meaning that the water was more acidic than alkaline.

Acidic water causes less direct health problems and more secondary ones. High acidity in water can cause heavy metals to leach into the water pipes, causing the metals to infiltrate the water systems, according to the nonprofit Water Systems Council.

“Lead exposure can lead to a host of neurological and reproductive problems, such as seizures, hearing loss and miscarriages,” according to the New York State Department of Health. “Ingestion of lead-tainted water is one way adults can become exposed to this toxin.”

Opinions and results of campus water quality vary from building-to-building.

Front desk supervisor of the HPER and senior Wyatt Bedell said the water stations at the HPER have filters they change out periodically. A green light means the water is safe to drink, yellow means caution and red indicates the filter needs to be changed.

“As long as it’s green, it’s perfectly clean,” he said. “We don’t want people drinking bad water, especially here since a high number of water bottles are filled here.”

Senior Chase Flemming said the HPER is great and he hasn’t heard anyone who doesn’t like it in the building.

Students in Stanley Russ, the Student Center and Snow Fine Arts had no complaints with the water.

Moving across campus to Burdick, Irby and McAlister, satisfaction dropped.

“[The water] tastes terrible,” Vicki Rawls said. “Like you’re licking a catfish.”

In McAlister, instructor David Bailin was also dissatisfied.

“They just need to give us a new building,” he said. “A high pH in my fish tank kills my fish.”

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