MORRISTOWN, NJ – Lead concentrations up to 21 times the “federal action level” were found in Morristown Medical Center’s water during tests in late February, said the hospital Wednesday, acknowledging the contamination likely existed for about a month before being noticed.

The hospital said water tests on Feb. 22 and Feb. 26 showed lead levels ranging from “extremely low to 326 parts per billion. It said the federal government requires that action be taken when potable water levels exceed 15 parts per billion.

“Ensuring the safety of our water is a collaborative effort between local and state authorities,” said the hospital in a statement, noting that subsequent test results showed “a strong decline” in lead levels. The medical center said it is working with state environmental and health officials as well as the Morris County Office of Emergency Management (MCOEM) to address the problem.

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The hospital said the probe determined that patients, guests, employees at the hospital between Jan. 22 through Feb. 25 “who ingested tap water may have had an exposure to lead.” On Feb. 25, the hospital shut off tap water and began providing bottled water for drinking and food preparation, said a hospital spokeswoman.

“Tap water continues to be safe for hand washing, cleaning, and bathing,” she noted, adding that a “hotline” is being created, a number people with questions can call for answers. Until then, people can call the state Poison Control Hotline at 800-222-1222, said the hospital.

The hospital gets its water from an on-site well, not from Morristown’s municipal water supply system. It said the well has been ruled-out as the source of the lead. “At this time, we are investigating the possibility that a lapse in a water treatment called orthophosphate, a commonly used chemical that keeps lead from entering our water system, may have caused lead particles to enter the water,” said the hospital.

The hospital published an “FAQ” list that includes answers to some of the inquiries it has been fielding:

1. Why isn’t Morristown Medical Center reporting the level of lead found?

We continue to work with the Department of Environmental Protection to assess the validity of a water sample taken on February 22. Results from a retest on February 26 ranged from extremely low to 326 parts per billion, which is still above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. Testing results in recent days have shown a strong decline in the level of lead in our water.

2. How often does the hospital test for lead in the water?

We are mandated by the state to test our water for lead on a semi-annual basis. The last test was conducted in September 2015, with acceptable results.

 3. Was any testing done between Jan. 22 and Feb. 25?

Yes, routine testing was conducted throughout this time. Multiple confirmatory tests were conducted in coordination with the DEP and DOH (state Department of Environmental Protection and state Department of Health) after Feb. 25.

4. Is the hospital reaching out to patients who were in the hospital at that time to notify them of possible exposure?

Yes; we are following federal guidelines for notification.

 5. What's the source of the contamination, old soldering, contamination of the well, etc...?

We continue to work with the DEP to determine the cause of the varying lead levels. The well water has been tested, and is not the source of the lead.

At this time, we are investigating the possibility that a lapse in a water treatment called orthophosphate, a commonly used chemical that keeps lead from entering our water system, may have caused lead particles to enter the water.

6. Where is the well?

On Morristown Medical Center property.

 7.  Could the exposure have preceded Jan. 22?

It is possible. Based on what we know at present, Jan. 22 was the last time we received acceptable water results, which we are making our baseline. As we continue to investigate this matter with the Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health, that date may change.

8.  What about mothers who recently delivered here?

Morristown Medical Center is proactively reaching out to our higher-risk population.

9. How did you determine the length of exposure?

Based on what we know, Jan. 22 was the last time we received acceptable water results, which we are making our baseline. As we continue to investigate this matter with the Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health, that date may change. DEP-confirmed results revealing varying levels of lead in the water were shared with Morristown Medical Center late on Feb. 24, and acted upon in coordination with Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health on Feb. 25.