Health Department letter urges having wells tested for radium

March 14, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County Health Department is encouraging about 20,000 northern and central county residents to have their private wells tested for radium, while stressing that the risk of contracting cancer by drinking contaminated water is small.

The recommendations, outlined in letters to be mailed Thursday, were made after tests of about 1,000 homes found that two out of three wells had high levels of radium. The naturally occurring radioactive metal is thought to cause bone cancer in high doses over time.

The letters are part of a larger campaign launched to ensure that residents get information about the issue and are aware that purification systems can rid water of radium. The department also has sent information to 2,200 real estate agents so prospective homebuyers are better informed.

At the same time, state and county health officials are trying to quell any panic.

"It is not a health emergency," county health officer Frances B. Phillips told Anne Arundel's legislative delegation at a briefing yesterday.

Radium levels are considered high if they exceed levels determined safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. Even so, "the theoretical risk of drinking 2 liters a day for 50 years would be one additional cancer death in 10,000," said Robert Weber, the department's director of community and environmental health.

An examination of bone cancer data shows that Anne Arundel's rate is similar to that of the state. Also, no correlation was found between the location of wells with high radium levels and the location of homes of those who developed bone cancer.

"They were scattered all over the county," said Phil Heard, a state environmental specialist.

The Health Department recommends that residents take steps to test their drinking water. Arrangements can be made through the department for a $64 radium test; if the results reveal high levels of radium, home owners can purchase filtration systems.

Experts remain puzzled by the concentration of radium in the northern and central part of the county. High levels have been detected in wells north of Route 50. Weber said he cannot explain the pattern.

The county discovered problems with wells in 1997 and 1998, when 22 of 50 tested positive for radium levels above the EPA standard. Subsequent tests in Anne Arundel and other counties confirmed earlier findings and turned up no problems outside Anne Arundel.

Weber said 950 wells have been tested, with two out of three exceeding the EPA standard.

One possible long-term solution may be to dig deeper wells. The county and Maryland Department of Environment are seeking federal funding to create a map that would help answer whether deeper wells would bypass radium-tainted water.

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