High copper levels found in Santa Barbara’s drinking water

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High levels of copper have been detected in the plumbing systems of at least three condominium complexes in downtown Santa Barbara. Water samples taken from kitchen sinks revealed copper levels that were in some cases more than twice the federal limit and almost 10 times higher than what the state recommends.

The Santa Barbara Independent reports those properties include 105 W. De la Guerra St., 121 W. De la Guerra St. and 401 Chapala St.

From left: Paseo Chapala (105 W. De la Guerra St.), One Twenty One (121 W. De la Guerra St.) and Sevilla (401 Chapala St.) are three complexes confirmed as having high levels of copper in their plumbing systems. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Too much copper in your system can cause vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and nausea. It has also been associated with liver damage and kidney disease. Children under one year old are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of copper.

Residents living in these units are concerned about their health. Some are already moving. Others are demanding something be done.

KCRW’s Larry Perel spoke with reporter Tyler Hayden, who’s been covering the story for the Santa Barbara Independent.

KCRW: You’ve talked to a lot of people living in these properties. How did most of them find out?

Tyler Hayden: Honestly, most of them found out through us. A few had been suspecting there was something wrong with their water for a while. If they had blond hair, it would turn green, and a lot of them had noticed weird, blue colored stains on their toilet.

Has anyone noticed health problems that could be a result of ingesting too much copper?

Yea, people I spoke with complained of tinnitus (ringing in the ears), blurry vision, rashes, nausea, gastro-intestinal issues; and those are pretty consistent with moderate long term copper exposure.

All three of the known properties were built within the past ten years, and they’re all within three blocks of each other. What’s the connection there?

That’s the big mystery I’m trying to get to the bottom of. What’s the common denominator? They all have different developers, different lead contractors, different pipe suppliers, but they’re all in the same corridor and they’re all relatively new. Usually, when you have copper leaching into the water system of a particular area, it’s because the pipes are really old. These all have new copper piping, so the question is what’s causing them to corrode?

Who’s on the hook for this?

There’s a lot of finger pointing going on. The tenants say it’s the owner’s responsibility. Owners think the developer should be responsible. Developers say it’s a city problem, because the city water is reacting in strange ways with the pipes. So, no one has stepped up to say this is our problem to fix.

Should people living in these properties be concerned?

I think, at the very least, they should be testing their water. They should find out exactly what’s in their water and take the appropriate steps. If I lived there, I’d be concerned.

This seems to only be the beginning of the story. What are you looking out for as you continue tracking this?

I’m looking for other buildings affected and more information from the developers and owners about where they got their piping. I’m curious if this is happening in other communities. I’m curious who is going to be held liable. I’m also curious about the responsibility of the city in all this. I know they’ve tested their public water distribution system and state water board say their levels are fine, but at the same time, the city is telling these private homeowners and residents to not drink and cook with their water.

Cover photo by Andy Putnam