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Lead levels in county water said to be safe

March 23, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

While officials in Washington and surrounding areas are trying to learn the extent of lead contamination in their water systems, their counterparts in Washington County say there is no cause for concern locally.

Officials from the three main water systems in the county - Hagerstown, Washington County and Hancock - said their water regularly tests within safe levels, although there may be some small pieces of lead remaining along the miles of water pipes.

Lead, an element found in older water pipes, can cause developmental problems in children and kidney problems or high blood pressure in adults, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Web site, www.epa.gov.

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The Maryland Department of the Environment enforces the federal lead standard, which requires public water systems to correct problems in their water if there is more than 15 thousandths of a milligram of lead per liter of water, or 15 parts per billion (ppb). That translates to about 2 ounces of lead in every 1 million gallons of water.

Hagerstown Water and Sewer Department Manager David Shindle said last week there have been no issues with the city's water supply.

Hagerstown's most recent lead tests revealed a level of 5 ppb or less. That reflects "very, very low results," said Robert Gebbia, city water and sewer director of laboratory testing.

Gebbia said the water leaving the city water plant is clean, but can pick up lead along its path before it comes out of a tap. Federal regulations state that public water systems are responsible for the safety of the water all the way to the tap.

Because the city has tested consistently low since the Department of the Environment began enforcing the latest lead regulations, the water and sewer department is now required to test only 30 homes a year, although the state did not require Hagerstown to be tested this year, Gebbia said.

The homes tested by the city are among several hundred built in the early 1980s, and the plumbing contains lead soldering that was used to fasten copper water pipes. The homes are considered by the Department of the Environment to be likely candidates for lead contamination, Gebbia said.

Gebbia said the city water system, and most others, treats its water to keep lead below the federal standard. Hagerstown adds lime, which coats the inside of the city and private water pipes with a thin layer of calcium to ensure that lead doesn't enter the drinking supply.

The lime also counteracts water acidity, which can cause lead from pipes to leach into the water system, Gebbia said.

Shindle said that while there are no known lead service pipes in the city, crews regularly come across lead joints during maintenance. Less frequently, workers find lead "goosenecks," the pipes that connect homes to water mains.

Those parts are replaced when found, Shindle said, but finding all the parts is not easy.

"If you can imagine trying to dig 28,000 holes in the street to find one," he said.

Greg Murray, director of the Washington County Department of Water Quality, said there are fewer problems like that in the water systems managed by the county because the systems are smaller. Nevertheless, if a home has lead in its water pipes, the water has to be treated.

If the water is treated properly so it doesn't corrode pipes and cause lead to leach into the water supply, "it's OK to have the lead there," Shindle said.

Washington County Public Schools is required to test only one school for lead because most lead sources have been ruled out, said Tony Surrano, the school system's environmental specialist.

The school system conducted a lead test of every county school in the late 1980s, resulting in the replacement of 195 fixtures. Most of the schools run water from other municipal water supplies, although four run well water.

Three of the schools - Old Forge, Fountain Rock and Conococheague elementary schools - have switched to bottled water.

Washington County Public Schools now is required to test lead levels only in Greenbrier Elementary School, school officials said. Greenbrier's most recent test showed its lead level at less than 1 ppb, according to information Surrano provided.

Kimmy Armstrong, who is in charge of lead testing for private water supplies for the Washington County Health Department, said "it's very infrequent" to find problems in private water sources, such as private wells. She said that in the 16 years she has worked for the department, she can remember only four or five times when a tap tested above 15 ppb.

Lead in water "doesn't appear to be a problem," Armstrong said.

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