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Conococheague Elementary to keep bottled water

December 07, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

CONOCOCHEAGUE - Conococheague Elementary School will continue to use bottled water, as it has for the past seven years, a school system official said Tuesday night.

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About 70 people who were upset over lead found in the school's water supply urged the school system to keep the bottled water.

Tony Suranno, the Washington County Board of Education's environmental safety specialist, said he will leave the bottled water until samples from all of the school's water fountains show lead levels are below federal limits.

"If that's what it takes to make you happy, we'll do it," he said.

Suranno said he intends to test the water next week. If those readings show the water is safe, he said he will take additional samples between January and June.

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Suranno said the bottled water was put into the school because the water supply contained too much iron and was discolored.

"The lead was never part of the reason bottled water was put in this school," Suranno said.

The school system corrected problems with iron and discoloration by installing a filter two years ago, and Suranno has been trying to get the bottled water out ever since.

But parents expressed alarm because tests have shown lead in the water.

"As parents, we should be outraged that the Board of Education would even consider removing the bottled water," said Marsha Long, president of the Conococheague PTA.

Suranno acknowledged that lead readings occasionally have exceeded the federal safety level of 15 parts per billion. But he said all readings have fallen below that after the water has been flushed out of the pipes.

Lead comes not from the well that serves the school, but from lead solder joints in the pipes. The longer water sits in the pipes - such as overnight - the more lead is potentially absorbed by the water.

This is especially true because the area's shale composition gives the water a low pH level, which officials said makes it more corrosive. Greg Murray, a Conococheague parent who also is director of the Washington County Water and Sewer Department, said chemicals that would increase the pH level could be added to the water at minimal cost.

Suranno suggested the school run its water for from two to five minutes each morning before school starts to remove water that has been exposed to pipes overnight.

Several parents objected to the idea.

"There's no guarantee that the level of lead will go down and stay down," Long said.

Lead poisoning can result in brain damage, lower IQ and can cause a number of other health problems. Children are particularly susceptible.

Some parents said they do not want their children drinking water that contains any lead.

"It shook me like you would not believe," said Debbie Smoot, a member of the school's PTA. "Low-leaded is not good enough. It has to be lead-free."

Suranno said lead-free water is nearly impossible to achieve. The federal standard - 15 parts per billion - is incredibly low. He used the analogy of 15 green bricks among a billion.

It is the equivalent of 15 inches in 16,000 miles.

Christina Ardito, a public health engineer for the Maryland Department of the Environment, told the audience that the department's lead program has never found lead poisoning caused solely by lead in drinking water.

Ardito offered a hypothetical example of a person who drinks two gallons of water with the maximum allowed level of lead every day for 80 years. The total amount of lead ingested over that period would weigh less than the circle of paper removed by a hole-punch, she said.

Several parents remained concerned, however.

"You people come here with all your statistics and reports. But the whole thing is cut and dried: Do we have lead in our water?" said parent Peggy Franks.

Several parents questioned why the bottled water had to be removed when its annual cost to the school system is between $2,000 and $3,000.

Suranno said he did not want to set a precedent that could result in every school with measurable readings of lead getting bottled water because it would likely mean every school in the county. And that would make the cost prohibitive.

In an interview, however, Suranno acknowledged that it might have been smarter to let the bottled water stay and hope it didn't become an issue at other schools.

"In retrospect, if I had known this was going to happen, I would never have suggested that the water be taken out," he said.

In an interview, Long said she was willing to go along with the tests for now. But she said she wants another meeting with school officials before the bottled water is removed.

"They can't guarantee us anything," she said.

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