Radium levels in well water pose threat

County says 2 out of 3 northern Arundel wells exceed drinking standards

September 16, 2005|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

Thousands of residents in northern Anne Arundel County sip unregulated drinking water, unaware of a cancer threat that potentially lurks in their private wells.

Radium, a radioactive element naturally found in rocks and soil, may be out of sight, but state officials have spent the summer trying to make residents aware of the cancer-causing substance that lies in the ground.

The state pays for up to 25 percent of the cost for a water-treatment system for wells containing high radium levels. All Maryland residents are eligible for the program, which was passed by the General Assembly in 2003, although northern Anne Arundel County is where radium contamination of well water is most prevalent.

"There are no other counties that face a problem of this kind," said Del. John R. Leopold, an Anne Arundel County Republican who was the chief sponsor of the bill.

The county Health Department estimates that two out of every three wells in northern areas of Anne Arundel exceed the drinking-water standard for radium, based on internal findings and studies from state agencies.

But no one had requested help until this summer, and those requests came only after a letter co-written by Leopold and Department of Housing and Community Development Secretary Victor L. Hoskins was sent to 583 homes.

As an incentive, the state Housing Department has offered free radium screening for the first 50 well owners who request it. At least three homeowners have applied for the pilot program, which expires three years after the first payment is made.

The county annually tests the public water system, which regularly meets federal standards, but health inspectors have not checked most of the estimated 40,000 homes in Anne Arundel that rely on well water.

About 20,000 wells are in areas of the county with elevated radium levels, said Kerry Topovski, the environmental health division director for the county Health Department. Of those, she said, about 2,000 have been tested since the late 1990s.

In 2002, the county regulated the depths for new and replacement wells in northern Anne Arundel at between 250 and 500 feet, with the exact minimum depth determined by a computer model. But there was no oversight before then. "It's an under-regulated area," Topovski said. "Once a well is installed, there's no oversight."

Radium in drinking water does not pose a health emergency, but long-term consumption can cause bone cancer, anemia, cataracts and fractured teeth. Radium exposure can be remedied by digging a deeper well or installing a water-treatment system.

Water-treatment systems run more than $2,000 but are less expensive than installing a deeper well. The state pilot program covers residents with household incomes of less than $80,000. The benefits are tiered to help low-income households the most. (Arundel Community Development Services Inc. also offers low-interest loans to income-eligible residents to pay for a water-treatment system.)

A movement to test wells began after the 1996 discovery that, from 1988 to 1992, Anne Arundel had the highest cancer death rate of any Maryland county west of the Chesapeake Bay. That finding triggered the creation of a cancer task force, which recommended checking well water.

Residents who want their well water tested should call the county Health Department at 410-222-7398.

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