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Maryland's corrosive groundwater

Should well owners and their tenants be looking out for lead?

If the recent revelations regarding lead poisoning in Flint, Mich., a case study of government indifference to drinking water safety as well as the harmful effects of lead on children, didn't cause some soul-searching in Maryland, there's new cause for alarm. A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey has found that well water is often so corrosive that it can leach lead from pipes and fixtures sufficient to endanger children.

The assessment of about 20,000 wells found that half of states face this potential threat, with groundwater samples in Maryland and much of the Northeast and Deep South determined to be corrosive enough to place those areas at "very high" risk. Roughly one of out of six Maryland residents gets their drinking water from a well.

While state officials have yet to react to the report, well owners with children would be wise to get their tap water tested by a qualified lab in addition to having their children tested. The effects of lead on children can be profound yet can occur without outward physical symptoms and thus not be diagnosed without a blood test.

Water isn't the only way children can be exposed to harmful lead levels, of course, but there's something particularly insidious about corrosive groundwater. People who have copper pipes instead of lead pipes in their newer homes, for instance, may think themselves immune, but that's not necessarily the case.

Lead solder used in copper pipe fittings (a product widely used prior to the late-1980s) could be a source of household lead, as are certain "lead-free" brass components and galvanized steel pipes that were allowed to contain up to 1.4 percent lead prior to 2014. At the very least, anyone who suspects the potential presence of lead in their well water should make it a habit to "flush" faucets that haven't been used for six hours or more (running water for 1-2 minutes), as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.

The report also begs the question: Is the quality of well water sufficiently monitored and regulated? The federal government requires no check for lead or other contaminants in well water, nor does the Maryland Department of the Environment. Some counties may require initial tests for potability in a new well, but none requires follow-up monitoring.

As the Flint episode demonstrated, the stakes with lead poisoning are high. Childhood lead exposure is closely associated with diminished cognitive skills — as much as one-third of the special education caseload in cities like Baltimore involves lead poisoning. Reading disabilities, high dropout rates, lower IQ's as well as increased hypertension, cardiovascular disease and asthma have all been linked to lead exposure.

And here's the other lesson of Flint: Government hasn't been an effective protector of water quality. Lead poisoning is far more prevalent in low-income households, and what happened in Flint helps explain why: The water supply was drawn from the Flint River beginning two years ago to save money, but the state failed to add an anti-corrosive agent to prevent the very same potential problem that Maryland's well owners are facing. It was only later, when thousands of children were tested for high lead levels (and an independent study revealed the source of the contamination), that appropriate action was belatedly taken.

Ensuring healthy drinking water for all Americans ought to be a high priority, yet — like ensuring quality roads, bridges and other public infrastructure — there's been a lack of sufficient investment. As a recent survey by the American Water Works Association discovered, as many as 22 million Americans are served their drinking water through lead water lines, part of a chronic problem that would require at least $30 billion more in infrastructure spending.

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have spoken out on the need for greater public infrastructure investment but one has to wonder the likelihood of that happening given the costs (which might reach into the hundreds of billions) and the past refusals of Congress to approve infrastructure spending sought by President Barack Obama. Yet the failure to spend money now to protect the nation's water supply could prove even more costly if it dooms the next generation to lead poisoning that might have been prevented.

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