Arsenic maps delayed

Oakland County residents are still waiting for the county to issue maps showing where arsenic and other contaminants have been found in wells that have been tested over the years. The maps could alert concerned residents about troubled areas nearby. Earlier this year county officials said the maps would be distributed in November. Now they are saying that the maps won’t be available until some time in January.

An estimated 250,000 county residents live in areas that primarily rely on well water.

"This is information we need as homeowners and parents so we can protect our children, so that we can make sure our children have safe drinking water," says Annette Calvin, an Orion Township resident who uses water from a well to cook and clean but not to drink. Calvin has two sons, ages 10 and 16.

The maps will show where samples of well water have revealed the presence of arsenic, nitrate and chloride and where the levels of those contaminants exceed EPA safety limits. High levels of arsenic — the EPA safety cutoff is 50 parts per billion in drinking water — are known to cause cancer and other severe health problems. Symptoms of chronic low-level arsenic exposure include fatigue, stomach pain, memory loss and skin problems.

Nitrate, which also occurs naturally in groundwater but may come from other sources, can be especially harmful to infants by keeping them from absorbing enough oxygen. It is considered dangerous in drinking water at 10 parts per million or more.

The latest delay in releasing the maps comes after a long controversy in which commissioners pushed the administration to have the maps developed in the first place. According to press accounts, County Executive L. Brooks Patterson expressed concern that the maps would drive down property values, but Patterson denies commissioners’ claims that he ever opposed the maps.

The maps, based on state data, were put together by the U.S. Geological Survey and University of Michigan-Flint. Thomas Gordon, who heads the county health department, says he and commissioners authorized the maps to go to print in mid-November. Representatives from USGS and U-M Flint said the maps were sent to the printer later that month. A federal printing office spokesperson says orders usually take about six weeks.

Gordon says the county has ordered 40,000 township maps and 30,000 countywide maps. He says as soon as the maps arrive back from the printer, they will appear on the county’s Web site and in its well information packet, which is distributed to new well owners or those having repairs done to existing wells.

The maps will also be available through the county health department, in public libraries, and in every city, village and township office.

Commissioner Ruth Johnson says county administrators still aren’t doing enough to spread the word about arsenic-tainted well water, for instance by putting the maps on the Web immediately.

Johnson is among those who would like to see more information added to the maps. The current maps indicate only two levels for each of the contaminants— above and below the EPA safety cutoff. The EPA standard for arsenic, 50 parts per billion, is five times the 10 parts per billion safety cutoff established by the World Health Organization. Congress has asked the EPA to consider revising its standard by the year 2000.

"We think the county should make an effort to give its residents the most complete and accurate information there is," Nolan Bennett, program coordinator for the Lansing-based environmental nonprofits Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund.

Gordon says if EPA changes the federal standard, that will be reflected in an updated version of the maps.

Meanwhile, Dr. Michael Harbut, division chief of occupational and environmental medicine at Providence Hospital in Southfield, plans to help in federal research to determine the long-term health effects of exposure to low and moderate levels of arsenic. The research is part of a federally funded program at the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C.

Harbut says some of his patients have shown elevated levels of arsenic and exhibited symptoms of arsenic poisoning. He plans to begin asking those patients for tissue, blood and urine samples to send to Armed Forces researchers beginning in January.

Harbut says he is seeking local funding for tissue collection from uninsured or HMO-insured patients.

"Clearly, the U.S. Armed Forces thinks that low levels of arsenic might be a problem, or at least it is something that is important enough to research," Harbut says.

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