Patricia Racine says she has long worried that the well supplying water for her home in historic New Market was contaminated. Now, she and dozens of others in the quaint Frederick County town have confirmation.
County officials announced yesterday that 45 of 57 private wells tested recently in the self-proclaimed "antiques capital of Maryland" showed elevated levels of bacteria and that 17 of them registered potentially harmful levels of the kind of microscopic bugs that could make people sick.
The announcement, made at a news conference in Frederick, the county seat, highlighted the vulnerability of older drinking-water wells in Maryland and stressed the need for well owners to check annually for possible contamination.
About 900,000 Marylanders get water from private wells, according to a 2004 state report. The number relying on private wells is expected to increase as outlying areas beyond the reach of public utilities are developed.
Michael Marschner, director of utilities and solid waste for Frederick County, called the test results "rather startling" because many residents have been consuming well water in this growing town east of Frederick with no apparent ill effects for years.
Marschner said he hopes that the findings will spur annual testing - which costs as little as $63 - and disinfecting of any private wells that are contaminated.
If the problem in New Market persists, he said, it might spur state and local officials to find the $2.5 million needed for a long-planned extension of public water to the older parts of the town, which dates to 1793.
"I think it's a very serious issue that the state really needs to come to grips with," said Racine, who said she and her husband have lived on Main Street for more than 20 years. Though they have treated their well water with ultraviolet light to kill bacteria for years, they never trusted it enough to drink it and have consumed bottled water instead, she said.
Speaking at the news conference, which was broadcast over the Internet and cable television, New Market Mayor Winslow F. Burhans III noted that disinfecting with chlorine might be all that many wells need. But he pointed out that the town has been seeking public water for years.
"Our level of anxiety should be set at `concerned,' not `panic,'" Burhans said.
Health Department officials said they have received no reports of illness that could be linked to drinking tainted water in New Market. But officials urged residents with worrisome test results to disinfect their wells promptly and offered to test the rest of the town's wells for free to better determine the extent of contamination.
The county offered to test New Market wells this summer after hearing residents' concerns that their wells might be contaminated, Marschner said.
Of the 57 tested, 45 showed elevated levels of total coliform bacteria, a group of mostly harmless bacteria that are common in soil and water but can be found in the guts of animals and humans. When found in wells, they are an indicator, though far from conclusive, that the water might be contaminated with fecal matter from animals or humans.
Seventeen of the wells also tested positive for E. coli, a type of fecal coliform bacteria commonly found in the intestines of animals and humans. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, finding E. coli in drinking water is "a strong indication of recent sewage or animal waste contamination" and of the presence of disease-carrying organisms.
Drinking water contaminated with E. coli can cause severe stomach cramps and watery or bloody diarrhea, health officials said. Generally, the illness is not life threatening, but children younger than age 5, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems might be vulnerable.
Marschner said it is not uncommon to find coliform bacteria in private wells in the Piedmont region of the state. He said porous and fractured limestone deposits underlying the soil make it easier for contaminated surface water to seep down into groundwater.
But E. coli contamination is not common and should be taken seriously, he said. If disinfecting with chlorine fails to kill off potentially harmful bacteria, he said, property owners might need to invest in repairing or replacing their wells, both costly.
Contamination might be traced to cracks in older pipes allowing surface-water seepage, or to the lack of modern filters to keep out insects and other animals.
About 21 more well tests are pending in New Market, Marschner said, and it might take several weeks to find out whether the tainted wells can be cleaned by pouring a chlorinated solution down the wells and leaving the pumps off for 12 hours to kill the bacteria. If those steps fail, the county utilities director said, he hopes the testing will help pinpoint what parts of town might need public water urgently.