Schools switch to bottled water; Radium levels in wells above U.S. standards; 'no emergency'

By Kris Antonelli, Sun staff
Copyright 1998 Baltimore Sun (Arundel Edition)
October 7, 1998

Students at five north Anne Arundel County schools are being supplied with bottled water because state officials found levels of radium above federal standards in three wells that serve the schools.

The Maryland Department of the Environment found the radium -- a radioactive metal that can cause bone cancer -- in wells that serve Chesapeake Senior High School, Chesapeake Bay Middle School and Bodkin, Lake Shore and Millersville elementaries in July. Those tests occurred two months after the county health department found levels of radium that exceeded federal standards in 22 private wells in north county, said department spokesman Quentin Banks.

"This is not a health emergency," he said, explaining that the risk for cancer is less than one in 10,000 even if students drank the water with the highest concentrations for 12 years. The amount of radiation students are exposed to is the same as from a full set of dental X-rays every three years, he said.

County school officials are taking no chances and are spending $ 12,000 to have the water delivered to the schools while deeper wells are dug to solve the problem, said school spokeswoman Jane Doyle. It will cost about $100,000 to have three new wells dug.

Banks said state environmental officials finished their risk assessment at the end of last month and notified county and school officials.

Monday, Superintendent Carol S. Parham and Frances B. Phillips, the chief county health officer, sent a letter home with students explaining the situation.

"Measures being taken are strictly precautionary ,"the letter stated. "Although there is no health emergency, we believe that the steps being initiated are appropriate."

Banks said the Department of the Environment began testing the schools' water after county tests showed that wells serving 15 homes in the area had higher-than-usual radium levels.

Those wells were treated to remove the radium, said Robert Weber, county director of community and environmental health.

The county health department began testing about 50 wells countywide last year after a citizen committee studying the cancer rate in the county decided it wanted to know more about the well-water supply, Weber said.

Trace amounts of radium usually are found in rocks, soil and ground water, and people are routinely exposed to small amounts of it, Banks said.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there is a little more than one in 10,000 chance of cancer developing in a person who drank two liters of water every day with the same amounts of radium found in the school wells.

County and school officials are planning a community meeting at Chesapeake Senior High School to explain the situation and will announce a date by the end of this week, Doyle said.

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