Harford community facing more tests for lead

The company that built homes in a Harford County development thinks it may have identified a possible cause of lead contaminated drinking water found in several of the homes' water systems.

Harford County health officials, however, say more testing needs to be done to the wells and plumbing in about 45 homes in the Grafton Ridge community off Grafton Shop Road between Fallston and Forest Hill.

During a health department sponsored community meeting held in Fallston Tuesday evening, William Briegel, vice president of land development for Richmond American Homes, said the company had found that a brass plumbing fitting in well pressure tanks of the Grafton Ridge homes may be responsible for the lead contamination of their water.

The homes were built between 2006 and 2009 and sold in the past few years at anywhere from $550,000 to $750,000, according to state tax records. Richmond American still owns a few unsold lots in the community.

At the Fallston meeting, Harford Health Officer Susan Kelly released the limited test data her agency has received from 19 homes in the subdivision. Some results showed water from nine homes had lead levels above the federal Environmental Protection Agency action level standard of 15 lead parts per billion. EPA says water with lead concentrations above that level should not be consumed.

The remaining homes in Grafton Ridge either tested non-detect or had lead concentrations under the action level.

Bottled water provided

Because of the initial findings, homeowners are temporarily being provided with bottled water by Richmond American, officials confirmed Tuesday.

Lead is toxic to humans in small amounts, mainly to children, where it is known to cause learning and developmental disabilities. The EPA says adults can suffer adverse health effects from prolonged exposure to lead from contaminated drinking water.

By far, Briegel said, the highest concentrations were from the pressure tank samples. Of the 16 pressure tanks tested, Kelly confirmed, 14 were found to be above the EPA action level.

The results were a compilation from different laboratories, Kelly said Wednesday, including from Health Department testing at the state lab, Richmond American Homes results and private labs that a few homeowners had contacted. More results are still coming in, she said.

The testing was triggered by a pending home sale in the community, Kelly said. From what she understood, a lender had required a lead test in the real estate contract. The test showed elevated lead levels, prompting other residents to check their own water.

Plumbing checked

After seeing elevated lead levels at the pressure tanks, Briegel said, Richmond American Homes discovered a brass fitting that appeared to have deteriorated from the acidic groundwater in that area, which in turn might have caused the elevated lead level in the water.

"Water in Harford County is acidic," Kelly agreed in a phone interview Wednesday, "and the acid does erode fixtures."

To combat the problem, Briegel said, the builder ordered stainless steel replacements for the fittings, as well as chemical neutralizer. Once those new fittings have been installed in a few homes, he said, they will test the water again to see if the lead is still present in the same levels.

In response to a resident's question during Tuesday's meeting, Briegel said that the maintenance required with a neutralizer, typically once a year, would be the responsibility of the homeowner.

Results did show there was lead above the action level at the wellhead in three of the 11 homes tested, and Briegel said they would go back and retest those wells to ensure it was not an anomaly.

Pending the further tests, he said, the company thinks the brass piece in the pressure tank is contributing to most of the elevated lead levels.

Kelly, too, said there were inconsistencies in the current data, which showed lead in some wells, but then not in the flush samples, which will in turn require further testing.

The brass piece is still just one possible source, she added in the later interview, and the Health Department is not in a position to draw any conclusions.

"No one is certain," she said.

More tests due

The health department is working with Richmond American Homes, which Kelly added has been very cooperative, to analyze testing and to determine a source. There are so many variables that make it difficult to pinpoint the source, she said, but the department had wanted to hold Tuesday's meeting to inform the homeowners about the initial findings and the health risks posed by lead.

"We are concerned about public health of the community first and foremost," she said.

The groundwater in Harford County, she said, does not typically contain lead, so the Health Department Certificate of Potability, required for occupancy, does not require lead testing of the well water for newly built homes.

"It's not something routinely tested for," she said.

Kelly also said during Tuesday's meeting that "literature would suggest" that orchards and other agricultural activities could impact surface water, but that they have never dealt with lead in a private well and she "hate[d] to speculate" as to the cause before getting more test results from Richmond American Homes.

The area where the subdivision is located was once populated by farms and orchards, many of which have been developed into tract housing over the past 35 years.

David Bolton, with the Maryland Geological Survey, who also attended Tuesday's meeting, said it is possible the local geology could be a cause of lead contamination in a well.

The Health Department has the authority to test homes, Kelly said at the meeting, but not necessarily the same resources to be able to drill test wells. Richmond American Homes, she said, has collected samples to test 44 out of the 45 homes and when finished, will then send aggregate data, without any personal information, to the health department.

From there, Kelly said, residents will have the right to request their results and if necessary, the Health Department will take its own follow-up samples.

Other homes checked

Briegel also said Tuesday that Richmond American Homes would use the stainless steel plumbing fitting assembly for homes it builds in its new Deer Hollow subdivision, which is adjacent to Grafton Ridge.

Richmond American Homes also built homes the Saddle View development across Grafton Shop Road from Grafton Ridge, and Kelly said although there was some lead found in the sample testing of water from those homes, it was not at the same levels as in Grafton Ridge.

The elevated lead levels found in the Grafton Ridge water do not approach the high levels typically found in paint, a major source of lead poisoning in dwellings, according to Environmental Health Director Cliff Mitchell of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who also attended Tuesday's meeting.

Regardless, lead contaminated water is still cause for concern, especially for pregnant women and children under six years old, Kelly told the homeowners.

In children, she said, lead contamination can lead to physical and mental delays, learning deficits and "seriously endanger the child."

With that in mind, she urged residents to get children age 10 and younger tested for lead contamination.

One resident at the meeting claimed, however, that lead ingestion levels would be diluted from the bottled water families have been drinking of late.

Mitchell replied that certain medical tests could still identify high lead ingestion levels.

By that point, another speaker pointed out, any "damage" had already been done.

There are treatments for lead contamination, Mitchell added, based on how much lead is found and on clinical judgment. In terms of preventing lead poisoning, he did say taking a single swallow of lead contaminated water, if bottled water is not available, would not be damaging to a person's health.

Although adults are low risk for health effects, Mitchell said, the EPA does warn that adults who drink lead contaminated water over many years could develop kidney problems or high blood pressure.

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