Fears about chemical spur closing of wells


Calls from concerned citizens about a suspected carcinogen in the Mount Airy water supply have prompted town officials to shut down two wells that produce more than 100,000 gallons a day.

Tetrachloroethylene -- used in pesticides, dry cleaning and manufacturing -- was discovered in early June when Carroll school officials tested the water to determine the cause of health problems at Mount Airy Elementary School. The wells were closed later that month.

Chemists testing town well number 5 found 4.9 parts per billion of tetrachloroethylene in the water. Federal standards say that up to five parts per billion is acceptable for human consumption.

School officials eventually traced the eye, throat and sinus irritations suffered by a teacher and several Mount Airy Elementary first- and second-graders to fecal bacteria in the carpet of those classrooms.

R. Delaine Hobbs, town council president, said the wells were turned off "because of the newspapers, not because of necessity."

"The content of TCE [tetrachloroethylene] was below what it had to be," he said. "But because of notoriety in the newspapers, it was easier to shut them down and forget it."

When the water was tested, Charles L. Zeleski, assistant director of environmental health at the Carroll County Health Department, said a person would have to drink 2 liters of tetrachloroethylene-contaminated water per day for 70 years before experiencing carcinogenic effects.

Although the tetrachloroethylene was only found in well number five, well number six had to be turned off as well, Mr. Hobbs said.

"When there's a blending before pumping it into the system, [the chemical level] balances out and there's no violation," he said.

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