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Not a Drop to Drink

CAMBRIDGE WATER:

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

FACT: The Cambridge water supply--which includes Harvard water--has been contaminated with abnormally high levels of a potentially carcinogenic compound for more than a year.

Fact: Cambridge repeatedly broke Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection regulations by not notifying its residents--including Harvard students--of this contamination.

Fact: When Cambridge finally sent a belated notice to water users in December, the Harvard administration chose not to tell most students that they had been drinking unsafe water.

In other words, students have been denied crucial health information by both Cambridge and Harvard. Although Cambridge officials claim the current excess of cancer-causing trihalomethanes (THMs) has ended, Harvard has a responsibility to verify this claim independently. More broadly, Harvard administrators must develop a mechanism to notify students of future environmental problems. Harvard must monitor the quality of the water it uses, especially when hazardous chemicals literally threaten the health of its academic community.

THE current controversy began in July 1988, when Cambridge officials recorded a level of THMs 12 percent above the maximum allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Despite scientific evidence that shows that THMs may cause cancer in laboratory animals, Cambridge did not comply with Massachusetts law and "notify the public" via newspaper "within fourteen days." In fact, Cambridge didn't even notify the public within 14 months. Not until the levels of THMs reached 96 percent above the permissible level in December did Cambridge finally send a warning letter to water users.

At Harvard, that letter went to Harry Hawkes, associate director for engineering and utilities. Hawkes, in turn, said he sent copies of the letter to those in charge of campus facilities. The person in charge of water supply to dorms is Michael N. Lichten, director of the Office of Project Management in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. When Lichten received the letter, he said he sent a copy to Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57, who later met with House masters. While the Harvard bureaucracy churned, students kept drinking the water.

Even after the bureaucracy finished churning, students were kept in the dark. It appears that only some first-year students received the water notification. House masters were apparently content to take Cambridge's word that the problem had been solved, despite the city's abysmal record of violations.

Even now, no organization has independently verified Cambridge's assertion that the concentration of THMs has returned to an allowable level. It is altogether possible that abnormally high levels of potential carcinogens still pollute the water we drink.

THE lessons from this disgraceful episode are clear. First, Harvard must take a leading role in making sure its water supply is safe, starting by testing to see whether THMs are down to permissible levels. With the laboratory facilities already existing on campus, this task should not be an excessive burden. The city has demonstrated that it cannot be relied upon to provide decent water. Harvard must keep the pressure on Cambridge to maintain water quality, as demanded by a petition being circulated by Laurie R. Belin '91.

Second, Harvard should ascertain the effects of prolonged exposure to high levels of THMs and inform the community of the results. How much are students at risk? As Cambridge resident and water-quality activist Alexandra Hewer said, "The public has not been educated" about the danger of THMs.

Third, administrators should immediately provide all relevant health information to students. Regardless of Cambridge claims of safety, students have a right to know the content of the water they drink. Harvard must streamline its notification process so that health warnings do not have to meander through the Harvard bureaucracy.

Living in a college dormitory implies a certain degree of trust between students and administration. That trust was violated when the administration did not inform students of hazardous water quality.

The College must rebuild that trust. And Cambridge must restore the quality of its water.

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