County Executive John R. Leopold plans to ask the General Assembly to make permanent a little-used financial aid program that helps well owners pay for water-purification systems to get rid of radium contamination.
Six families have taken advantage of the pilot program since Leopold, who took office this month after five terms as a delegate, sponsored the 2003 bill creating it.
The program, which was set to expire in 2009, uses state and county grants to reduce the cost of a water-purification system for eligible households by up to 25 percent.
While the program is available statewide, radium, a highly radioactive element that has been linked to cancer, is most prevalent in northern Anne Arundel County.
"The cost of the program is minimal, and we need to let people know that it exists," said Leopold, who lives in Pasadena.
In the past few years, the county Department of Health has tested about 4,000 private wells in northern Anne Arundel and found that two out of three contain levels of radium that exceed the "maximum contaminant level" set by the Environmental Protection Agency, said Kerry Topovski, the county director of environmental health.
More recently, the department has also found unsafe levels of lead in wells in Crofton and Gambrills, near a fly-ash fill site at the BBSS Sand and Gravel Mine.
While all new wells must be inspected by the county for minimum depth and water purity, there is no such requirement for existing wells, which number 16,000 to 20,000 in northern Anne Arundel alone, Topovski said.
The Department of Health tests wells upon request for $64.
"We're trying to target existing well-users and really to encourage them to test and see if they have elevated levels of these metals," she said.
Radium occurs naturally in rocks and soil, often in gaseous form, and dissolves in water, which then seeps into underground aquifers.
Small amounts of the metal can cling to the bones when ingested, much like calcium, sometimes causing cancer after prolonged exposure.
Risk studies by the EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment estimated that "if 10,000 people were to consume two liters of drinking water containing [the maximum contaminant level] of radium every day over a 50-year period, one additional fatal cancer might occur in that group," according to the Anne Arundel County Department of Health's Web site.
It is assumed that as the contaminant level increases, so does the risk of cancer, but research correlating the two is thin.
"We need to do a better job of warning people of the laws we have, so they are aware of the financial systems available to them," Leopold said.
The pilot program he pushed for is available to households with annual family incomes of less than $80,000 that have purchased a treatment system since 2003.
State and county grants are issued on a sliding scale, with higher-income households receiving a 10 percent to 15 percent refund and lower-income households a 25 percent refund, said Eileen Hagan, senior manager for the county's housing department, which administers the program.
The price of a new treatment system can range from $800 to $3,000, county officials said, depending on the type of treatment, and whether it filters the house's entire water supply or just the drinking water.
Fred Reidenbach, president of HydroMax, an Emmitsburg company that sells and installs water-purification devices, pegged the cost of a new system that uses reverse osmosis - among the most common water-treatment methods - at $3,000 to $4,000, depending on the size of the household.
In reverse osmosis, a membrane filters metals, including radium and lead, from the water supply and flushes them into a drain.
It usually only takes a few hours to install the device, Reidenbach said. "It's not much different than installing a hot-water heater."
For more information on well testing, contact the Anne Arundel County Department of Health's Well Construction/Water Quality Program at 410-222-7398.