Robert Atkins thought he was really onto something, collecting his drinking water for free from a spring on Henryton Road in southeastern Carroll County. Clear and delicious, it reminded him of the water he drank growing up on a Virginia farm.
After a few weeks, however, Atkins came down with gas pains and diarrhea. Suspicious, he had the spring water tested and, sure enough, it had a high bacteria count. He complained to a string of state and county agencies.
Despite Atkins' complaints and additional testing by The Sun that also showed unhealthy levels of bacteria, Carroll health officials and Maryland environmental officials say they're not responsible for monitoring water quality at springs or warning people not to drink from them.
"I think the Health Department should be involved, even if legally they don't have to be," said Brenda Azfal, drinking water specialist at the University of Maryland Environmental Health Center.
Tests commissioned by The Sun confirmed the high bacteria count at the popular Henryton Road spring and also found an elevated bacteria level at a well-known spring on Stone Chapel Road outside Westminster.
An analysis by Fountain Valley Laboratory in Westminster showed that both springs contained unhealthy levels of coliform bacteria.
A concentrated amount of coliform bacteria can make some people sick, said Chuck Mooshian of Fountain Valley. More important, though, it indicates a potential for other, more dangerous bacteria to thrive in the water.
Although the level of coliform bacteria contamination at the Henryton Road spring is only about a tenth of the level in a typical stream, Mooshian suggested that users boil the water and run it through a filter before drinking it.
The water at the Henryton Road spring trickles steadily, and people show up with buckets and jugs to collect gallons of it.
Because the water isn't regulated, no one knows how many people drink it. But Atkins said he has often seen four or five people waiting in line.
Water from that spring registered at about 75 coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters of water, Mooshian said, while a drinking supply should have less than 1 coliform per 100 milliliters. The Stone Chapel Road spring measured about 36 coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters. A typical stream might have about 1,000 coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters, Mooshian said.
Water quality can fluctuate, he said, especially during rainy periods.
Mooshian said he also would be suspicious of the water's chemical composition, which he did not analyze.
"The bottom line is: Any time you have a source, like a spring, that interacts with ground water, you have to worry because you don't know exactly what's in it," he said. "I personally wouldn't rely on a source like that for my drinking water."
Private springs not tested
Mooshian said people can't rely on warnings from the Health Department to protect them from tainted springs because the department doesn't test noncommercial water.
If the water isn't being put to commercial use, the owner of the property where the spring originates would have to post signs that warn of poor water quality, said Charles Zeleski of the Carroll County Health Department. The department would step in if a wave of illness were connected to the spring, but otherwise it has no jurisdiction to test a spring or post warnings, he said.
Several officials at the Maryland Department of the Environment said the agency does not regulate springs and referred inquiries to the county Health Department.
In a case such as the Henryton Road spring, where water trickles from state-owned land, it is unclear who would warn potential users. Atkins complained to a string of park officials, all of whom eventually referred him to the county Health Department.
Atkins, a Randallstown resident, said he was shocked when no warning sign appeared by the spring after he and another person who drank the water talked with officials at the Health Department.
Azfal said she has worked with a community in Pennsylvania where many people take their water from a private spring. That property owner put up a sign warning users of potential contamination.
"I would think it would ultimately fall back on the owner of the property to put up signage or cap off the water," said Barbara Sattler, director of the university Environmental Health Center. "People should at least have a sign telling them explicitly how they should boil or treat the water."
Many people who own private springs simply cork them to avoid potential liability disputes, Sattler and Azfal said.
'It tastes good and it's clean'
But many users don't want the springs to stop flowing.
"The water is great; it tastes good and it's clean," said Gary Bianchi of Marriottsville, who uses the Henryton spring as his main source of drinking water.
Bianchi moved to the area three months ago, and his real estate agent told him about the spring. He likes the water so much that he bought a large cooler to fill and lug back to his house. He and his family have suffered no ill effects, he said.
Harry Lenk said he has been drinking from the Henryton Road spring for years without getting sick.
"I've never heard anybody say anything bad about it," he said. "Except that you always have to wait in line to get it because everybody likes it so much."
Lenk and Bianchi said they thought the state regulated the water.
The owners of the property where the Stone Chapel Road spring bubbles could not be reached for comment. But Gene Royer, who owned the property until August, said the water was tested several years ago and was found to be clean.
That is possible, Mooshian said, because bacteria levels fluctuate based on any number of factors, including rainfall and temperature.
"People have come from all over to get that water for years, and we've never had a problem," Royer said.
Some are more vulnerable
When asked whether the state should post warnings at sites such as the Henryton and Stone Chapel Road springs, a number of officials said it would be unrealistic to mark every potentially infected water source in the state.
A person can dip a cup into any stream, pond or gutter and take a drink. Common sense tells most people not to drink apparently dirty water, but spring water often appears and tastes clean. Most bacteria can't be smelled, seen or tasted, Mooshian said.
Some people might drink the water and not get sick, Mooshian said, because their immune systems don't react badly to coliform. But the gastrointestinal problems Atkins experienced would be a common reaction, Mooshian said.
The elderly, small children and others with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable to water-related illnesses.