UC Berkeley must do more to protect students from potential health hazards

Illustration of several floors of an apartment building
Alexander Hong/File

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Editor’s note: The original illustration attached to this story was removed for internal reasons.

Imagine waking up bleary-eyed, tired and more than ready to get the day over with and have the weekend start. Stumbling toward the bathroom, you get ready to do your business and reach over to turn on the sink. As you reach to run your hands through the water, you can barely comprehend the disgusting sight in front of you. 

Brown water gushes through the sink. It’s not a sight anyone should see, especially not campus students. Yet last Friday, residence hall students did see such an event early in the morning. Brown water typically occurs when a pipe is shut off. This dislodges any rust, sediment or other underlying debris in the pipes and allows it to float freely with the rest of the water. Typically, there are minute amounts of such elements already floating around, well within any health-risk standards. This makes for discolored water that usually is brown in color, however. While not a direct health risk in and of itself, rust in water is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. When this is released directly into the water supply, it creates a health risk that people should be wary about and leaking pipes can also lead to further health risks in the future via mold or mildew. 

According to UC Berkeley, such issues must be highlighted and submitted to maintenance as soon as they can be. Yet should it not be a priority for the school to make sure that students are aware of upcoming plans, such as shutting down the water, regardless of the time? 

In situations like this, school policy is usually to take in a work order form under facilities services. Residents are meant to send in issues that have occurred. This solution is very reactive, however, and the completion of these work order forms can potentially open up a whole new can of worms with regard to problems. Nonetheless, as mentioned, these forms are not meant to be proactive services. So the point is that some type of warning has to arrive. There is no way students can actually prepare for such an event.

Much as with the PG&E outage and how students received an email about an unplanned event, it cannot possibly be much harder to send an email about an event that is going to be obviously planned. Even if a small number of students are impacted, just the fact that the information is put out there will definitely help prepare students more. Moreover, if a health hazard occurred, UC Berkeley would have been protected if the information had been  disseminated. 

So, while UC Berkeley continues to devote much appreciated money to the Tang Center and other health facilities, why create a health risk in the first place? While it may be true that many students may not have been using the water at such a late time, all it takes is a few students to use the water for a health infection to spread. In crammed and confined quarters such as the Units, health infections have the risk of spreading quickly. 

In many such situations, the brown water can be removed by allowing the water to run cold for about 20 minutes. This is indeed what Adam Ratliff, a campus spokesperson, mentioned. Yet how can a student get rid of the water when the water is completely shut off? For students who were in the middle of washing their hands or face or brushing their teeth, they could be stuck with brown water, and then no water. To mitigate the situation, many of the students found creative solutions such as using a Brita filter or a water fountain. The point remains, however, that students should not live under these potentially risky health conditions in the first place.

Although the brown water contamination persisted for only a short amount of time, it should be campus policy to inform students of such procedures that will take place, so they won’t be caught unaware and ill-prepared. 

After all, our brave Bears can’t be living with dirty water when they already have to worry about earthquakes, PG&E and all of the midterms that are ready to come at them. 

Go Bears?


Atharva Palande is a member of the Residence Hall Association and is an intended economics major at UC Berkeley.