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Release: Jan. 3, 2002

Drinking water in Biology Building East accidentally contaminated

IOWA CITY, Iowa — University of Iowa faculty and staff who work in the Biology East Building are being warned not to drink the water there until the building's water supply can be flushed. The warning comes after the water supply was accidentally contaminated with up to 30 gallons of heating loop fluid containing the antifreeze ethylene glycol on Monday, Dec 31.

The heating loop fluid is a mixture of half water and half ethylene glycol. According to safety information on the product, "amounts ingested incidental to handling are not likely to cause injury; however, ingestion of large amounts could cause serious injury." As of Thursday, there were no reports of faculty or staff who have been made ill by drinking the water.

University officials have notified the Iowa Department of Natural Resources about the incident and have received DNR approval for the plan of action to decontaminate the building's water supply. That plan includes the following steps:

* The building's potable water system is being flushed to remove residual contamination. Following the flushing, the water will be tested for ethylene glycol to verify decontamination.

* Signs have been posted in the building saying "Biology Building East Water Contaminated with Ethylene Glycol — Do Not Drink the Water in this Building until Further Notice."

* Exterior entrances to the building have been locked so that only university staff can enter the building until the decontamination is complete.

The incident occurred after university plumbers were called to the building early on the morning of Dec. 31 when the heating system went down because of a leak. After fixing the leak, workers pumped the antifreeze back into the system at about noon. Not long afterwards, a building maintenance worker noticed that water in a toilet had a pinkish tinge similar to the color of the antifreeze. Workers notified their managers on Wednesday, Jan. 2, following the New Year's holiday. Officials from the UI Health Protection Officer and the DNR were notified that same day. Likewise, the source of the contamination was confirmed and flushing began on Wednesday.

"It appears that the antifreeze was accidentally introduced into the potable water system because of a difference in pressure between the heating loop and the potable water system," said John De Brie, director of Operations and Maintenance for UI Facilities Services Group. "It's possible that we had a malfunctioning pressure gauge, but in the future we will make it standard practice to put a backflow preventor into the system. That should ensure that we don't allow this to happen again."