Toxic mystery surrounds Salisbury-area wells

In the 20 years she's lived on the outskirts of Salisbury, Arlene White said she'd never noticed anything unusual about her tap water.

Now, though, White and dozens of neighbors are drinking bottled water and limiting their bathing after tests found unsafe levels of a toxic chemical in their household wells. A handful of residents, including Brian Bracken, have had large tanks hooked up to their homes, filled with treated water trucked in from nearby Fruitland.

Local, state and federal officials are scrambling to provide safe, clean water to homes southeast of the Eastern Shore's largest city even as they acknowledge that they don't know the source or extent of the groundwater contamination.

Trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent that health authorities have deemed likely to cause cancer, has been found in 46 of 113 wells tested in two neighborhoods, and results are pending for 75 wells sampled this week, according to Dennis DiCintio, environmental health director for the Wicomico County Health Department.

"One is too many," DiCintio said, but that many lead to "an extreme level of concern."

The contamination was uncovered in late July when a resident who thought his home's water smelled strange had the well tested. The resident reported the results to the county Health Department, which sampled nearby wells. When those came back contaminated, too, the search expanded and drew in state and federal agencies.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has sent letters to about 250 homes asking to sample their wells, according to spokesman Jay Apperson, and officials are working to reach or gain consent from those owners.

It is unclear how the chemical got into the groundwater. The area used to be farmland and there are still open fields nearby. Horacio A. Tablada, the MDE's director of land management, said agency records do not indicate that there were ever any dumps or landfills in the vicinity.

Neither does it appear that there were machine shops or other businesses that might have used large quantities of the chemical, which is often used to clean metal parts and electronic equipment. It also is found in paint removers, brake cleaners, adhesives and some household products.

"Given the extent of the contamination," Tablada said, "we think it's more than somebody dropping a little bit of stuff on the ground." Residential wells there are generally drilled 60 to 80 feet down, he said. It's possible, he acknowledged, that the contamination has been there, and spreading, for years.

For now, government officials say, they're focused on finding and helping all the households with contaminated wells. Once residents are assured of having safe water, the officials will turn to investigating how the chemical got into the groundwater and who is responsible.

White, 65, said she hopes health and environmental agencies quickly get a handle on the problem and come up with a solution.

"I'm certainly not happy about the situation," she said, "and I, along with my neighbors, want to get to the bottom of this and find out what happened."

Drinking or breathing high levels of trichloroethylene can damage the nervous system, liver and lungs, and can cause abnormal heartbeat, coma and death, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

It is one of the most common contaminants in U.S. groundwater, but levels are generally well below those that could cause acute health problems.

Inhaling small amounts can cause headaches, lung irritation, dizziness and difficulty concentrating, according to the federal agency. Drinking low levels over a long period can cause liver and kidney damage, impaired immune systems and impaired fetal development in pregnant women, the agency said. Rats fed high doses in laboratory tests have gotten cancer, and some studies have found higher cancer rates among people exposed to high levels through drinking water or in the workplace.

The federal safety threshold for trichloroethylene in drinking water is 5 parts per billion, but officials say they're also concerned about the possibility of inhaling the chemical when bathing or showering or in vapors given off by the water. Samples have shown 33 homes above the safe drinking-water threshold, according to Apperson.

The state has furnished bottled water to 34 households, Apperson said. The Environmental Protection Agency has bought eight large water tanks holding 500 or 1,500 gallons each for homes with the highest health risks, where contamination is high and there are vulnerable occupants, such as pregnant women or women of child-bearing age.

Bracken, 59, who is single, said he's glad to have the 1,500-gallon tank hooked up to his house, where a test of his well turned up TCE at 550 parts per billion. He said he never noticed anything unusual about his well water in the 13 years he's lived there. Now, though, he said he can tell the difference in the tank water trucked in from Fruitland's municipal system.

"I could smell the chlorine right when it came in," he said. "I'll get used to it if I have to ... if it's safe."

The EPA is contracting to install carbon filtration systems on about 25 wells, according to spokeswoman Bonnie Smith. Once the systems are installed, she said, "they'll have safe drinking water and also reduced vapor exposure to TCE during showering and bathing."

The costs of the tanks and the filters are being covered under the federal Superfund program, set up to get hazardous sites cleaned up by the government when responsible parties cannot be found.

Over the longer term, officials say, they plan to examine whether residents would be better served by drilling a deeper community well or by hooking up the affected neighborhoods to a municipal water system — Fruitland's is little more than a half-mile away.

Chris O'Barsky said his family is among those waiting to find out whether their well is contaminated, but they are taking precautions just in case.

"We're already kind of heavy bottled water drinkers anyway," said O'Barsky, 40, an assistant fire chief in Salisbury. He said he and his wife, Tara, a school vice principal, have begun buying gallon jugs of water instead of the small bottles they'd been getting for school lunches for their 8-year-old daughter and son, 13.

"We try as much as possible not to use the tap water," he said. "Showers, of course, are a different monster. We've cut our showers down." There's a bright side to that, O'Barsky noted: "It's sped my son's showers up."

Some residents, including O'Barsky, are not keen on the prospect of getting municipal water, noting that there's usually a fee for hookup plus monthly bills.

"That was the reason we wanted to live here, so we didn't have to pay for city water," he said.

For now, though, O'Barsky and others say they're pleased with the swift government response.

"All I care about is clean water right now," Bracken said. "Then we'll worry about who's paying for this and that."