Officials plan inspections of private wells Tap water checks this month will look for carcinogens

'Testing everything they can'

Survey of 50 homes spurred by high rate of cancer deaths

September 09, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Health inspectors will begin testing private drinking-water wells in Anne Arundel County this month hoping to find out why the county has one of the highest cancer death rates in the state.

County, state and federal officials will spend about four months checking tap water at about 50 homes in the county for pesticides, industrial chemicals and other compounds believed to cause cancer.

"So far, they haven't found anything out of the ordinary with our water supply," said Richard Dixon, regional manager for water operations at the county's Department of Public Works. "But they are testing everything they can to eliminate them as possible causes of cancer."

A December 1996 report by the Maryland Cancer Consortium, a coalition of cancer experts from around the state, found that from 1988 to 1992, Anne Arundel County had the highest cancer death rate of any county west of the Chesapeake Bay.

Of every 100,000 Anne Arundel County residents, an average of 199 died of cancer each year during that period, according to the report.

That was 15 percent higher than the national average of 173 deaths per 100,000 people during the period and 4 percent higher than the state average of 191 deaths, according to the report.

Anne Arundel's County's rate was lower than Baltimore's, which was 255 deaths per 100,000 residents.

It also was lower than the rates in the five Eastern Shore counties: Kent, Somerset, Dorchester, Wicomico and Caroline, according to the report.

The relatively high rates of lung, breast, skin, colon and cervical cancer deaths in Anne Arundel probably result from an unusual amount of smoking, overly fatty diets and a lack of early cancer tests, according to a March 1996 study by a group of county medical experts.

Task force recommendation

But the study by the Anne Arundel County Advisory Task Force on Cancer Control said the county should test private drinking-water wells, because health officials did not know whether they contained carcinogens.

At least once a year, the county tests its public wells -- which supply water for 75 percent of the county's 459,000 residents -- for pollutants and cancer-causing compounds, county officials said.

But health inspectors do not check the tap water of the roughly 40,000 homes in the county that have their own drinking-water wells.

"We want to fill in this data gap, to make sure that there is nothing unusual going on in the homes with private wells," said Dr. Katherine Farrell, the county's deputy health officer.

"If we have a problem, we'll deal with it. If we don't have a problem, at least we'll know that," Farrell said.

Joint effort

The $235,000 study will be conducted by the county, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said Robert Weber, director of community and environmental health for the county.

When the final report is complete in September 1998, it will show whether wells connected to the 50 homes being studied have any particles given off by naturally occurring radioactive materials, such as radium 226; pesticides such as atrazine, which are used by farmers; chemicals such as benzene, which are used by industries; or other dangerous substances, Weber said.

No health threat found

The county has never found any health threats in its regular tests of the public water supply, Dixon said.

During the late 1980s, inspectors found that a well near Sawmill Creek in Glen Burnie had trace amounts of the naturally occurring radioactive minerals uranium 226 and uranium 228. This well was shut down with no reports of public health problems, Dixon said.

Inspectors found in the early 1990s that a second well, near Glen Burnie High School, contained a solvent probably used in a nearby dry-cleaning plant.

That well also was closed with no danger to the public, Dixon said.

Pub Date: 9/09/97

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