2 schools reopen after water tests clean

Harford County defends delay in notifying parents of bacterial contamination

September 17, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Two Harford County public schools will reopen today after preliminary tests found their water systems free of a bacterial contamination that led officials to close the buildings last week.

At a news conference yesterday, Superintendent Jacqueline Haas defended the procedure used to notify parents and the county health department after elevated levels of Legionella pneumophila bacteria were found in the locker rooms at Joppatowne High and Magnolia Middle schools.

Haas said she learned of the positive test results Sept. 9 at a regular school board meeting, and the county health department was notified the next morning.

With schools closed Sept. 10 and a bomb threat at Joppatowne High on Wednesday, Haas said Thursday was the earliest opportunity to inform parents at the high school.

A letter also was sent home Thursday with the middle school pupils.

But the notification process worried some parents, including Michele Younger of Edgewood, who attended the news conference at Joppatowne High to learn more about the water test results.

She said parents had not been properly informed and that she attended the conference on behalf of "more concerned parents than [the schools] are aware of."

She has a daughter in high school and another at the middle school. "This is a really big concern for me," Younger said. "They drank it, washed their hands in it, took a shower in it."

Since the first test results were received, the water in both schools has been heat- and chlorine-treated to kill bacteria, Haas said.

Final results from water samples taken last week are expected to come back in 10 to 14 days, she said.

Haas said she planned to keep water coolers in the schools and would work with concerned families. If parents choose to keep children home, she said, the absences will be excused.

Legionella is a common bacterium that, in rare cases, can cause Legionnaires' disease. Symptoms of Legionnaires' disease include fever, chills and a cough, and can lead to pneumonia.

Dr. Beverly Stump, county health department director, said children are rarely infected with the disease, which typically afflicts men over 50, smokers, diabetics and people suffering from chronic lung or kidney disease.

County Executive James M. Harkins made the decision to turn off water at the schools Thursday after learning that the two older buildings did not have backflow preventers, which protect the water supply if pressure is lost. Haas then canceled Friday classes.

"At no time was the public drinking water ever compromised," Harkins said yesterday.

He and Haas said that the two schools would be equipped with the backflow preventers, using money from the school budget. The school system is also considering outfitting 12 other older schools with the protective devices, Haas said.

Water and sewer engineer Jackie Ludwig said Magnolia's retrofitting would cost about $50,000.

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