An obscure state loan program created to help rural residents install or fix indoor plumbing also can be used for a different purpose, a state legislator has discovered: the purchase of water-treatment systems to remove radium from private wells.
Some Pasadena residents concerned about the quality of their drinking water say the household water purifiers are not enough. For them, nothing short of public water will do, but the county has no plans to extend the service farther down Mountain Road.
"We need to find out what is really happening out there," said County Councilwoman Shirley Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat. She hopes to learn more at next week's Greater Pasadena Council meeting, at which residents and county health officials will get a chance to discuss the radium problem.
Still, Murphy said, it's "good to know" about the low-interest loan program.
Homeowners who meet affordability guidelines may use the loans to buy water-treatment systems, which are considered effective ways to eliminate radium but can cost $1,500. Thousands of northern Anne Arundel County wells, including many in Pasadena, are thought to have high levels of the naturally occurring radioactive metal.
"It'll be helpful in the short term for those who are in need of assistance," said Del. John R. Leopold, a Pasadena Republican who said he happened upon the $275,000 loan program while researching the radium issue.
"There can be no greater priority than people's health," he said. "As you well know, cancer rates in this county have been near the top in the nation."
People who consume radium in high doses for long periods of time run a greater risk of contracting bone cancer, experts say.
There is no public health threat in the county, health officials say.
Unconvinced that water-treatment systems work, a group calling itself Citizens Against Radium Poisoning will press its case for public water before the Greater Pasadena Council. The session is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Lake Shore fire hall.
"Most of us have water-treatment systems. The problem is it doesn't take all of the radium out," said Gladys DeLawder, a member of the citizens group.
As for the group's bid for public water, she said, "We're not going to give it up."
Authorities detected high radium readings in some Anne Arundel well water after a 1996 report raised alarms about the high incidence of certain cancers in the county. High radium readings were found in Pasadena, Severn, Millersville, Crownsville and Severna Park.
In March, the county sent letters to 20,000 homes advising owners to test wells. For $64, residents can have their wells tested by calling the county Health Department, but officials have said owners would have to pay for either of the two standard treatment systems, ion exchange or reverse osmosis.
Only recently did Leopold learn about the indoor-plumbing loan program, which was established in 1987. "It's easy to see why no one would dream radium would fall under that definition," he said.
The state official who administers the program said it would apply to removing radium as long as owners had a test showing high levels. "There is funding available," said Eileen Hagan, director of special loan programs at the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
Not everyone can qualify. A family of four must have a household income of $53,500 or less to be eligible. The interest rate would range from 0 percent to 7 percent and would be determined by income level, Hagan said.
A household of four with an income below $33,450 could receive no-interest loans that would not have to be repaid until the house was sold, she said.