PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY – Despite occasional odors or discoloration, tap water in Prince George’s County is safe to drink, according to a six-month investigation by The Sentinel Newspapers. This story is part of a series of articles The Sentinel will present about water quality and water issues in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. Sentinel reporters […]
PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY – Despite occasional odors or discoloration, tap water in Prince George’s County is safe to drink, according to a six-month investigation by The Sentinel Newspapers.
This story is part of a series of articles The Sentinel will present about water quality and water issues in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. Sentinel reporters conducted water tests at 50 locations across the two counties, including 20 in Prince George’s, and had the samples analyzed by National Testing Laboratories Ltd. in Ypsilanti, Mich. In the Prince George’s County samples, while most of the contaminants were not detected or fell below Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, five samples contained levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) above the maximum contaminant level. Eight samples also had water classified as hard.
THMs are disinfection byproducts produced by the interaction of chlorine with organic materials in the water. Chlorine is added to water to kill bacteria and other harmful microorganisms. However, studies have shown THMs to be carcinogenic in high quantities. The EPA standard is no more than 80 parts per billion (ppb), and samples collected in Bowie, Accokeek, Largo-Kettering and Fort Washington exceeded that maximum by between two and 19 ppb.
The samples all came from areas served by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC). Like all utilities, it is required to put out a yearly water quality report disclosing the results of its internal water tests, and The Sentinel’s test results match what is contained in the report. The range of THMs detected across the WSSC system was 16.5 to 94.5 ppb for 2015, with a locational annual running average of 62 ppb. This is within the EPA standard and not a violation.
WSSC has not had a water quality violation in 97 years, the company says.
Rick Rogers, assistant director of the Environmental Protection Agency Office of Drinking Water, told The Sentinel Newspapers he did not see any problems in the test results, nor did he think the tap water posed any health risks.
WSSC itself is aware of THMs, and Robert Trimble, superintendent at WSSC’s Patuxent water treatment plant, said that treatment protocols have changed since he started working with WSSC nearly 40 years ago as more information about THMs came to light.
“We don’t pre-chlorinate anymore because we learned about disinfection by-products, adding chlorine gas to organics. So we separate the two as far apart as we can. We put chlorine (in) at the back end and do organic matter at the front end,” he said.
The other main finding from The Sentinel’s investigation is that tap water in much of the county is hard. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) considers water hard if it contains between 121 and 180 mg/L of magnesium and calcium, and very hard if it is greater than 180 mg/L. National Testing Laboratories’ internal standard is more than 100 mg/L, and eight samples exceeded that level. The hardest water was collected in Chillum (200) and Largo (180). Bowie, Suitland, Fort Washington and Accokeek also had hard water, according to The Sentinel’s investigation.
Hard water is not considered a health concern for humans. However, hard water can be rough on pipes and fixtures and cause consumers to spend more money on soaps because they will not lather as effectively in hard water.
“The term hardness has come from a number of different things, one of them being hard to lather,” said Chuck Wagner, water quality specialist for the MD-DE-DC USGS Water Science Center. “I can’t answer the fact of health problems. I will say it causes soap scum and can build up in pipes. The white powdery stuff you can see around pipes is often calcium.”
Trimble said the EPA does not consider it harmful.
“I don’t correlate it to health. I do with its ability to dissolve soaps. I’ve never equated it with health. Maybe because we’ve never had an issue. I’ve never had to look further into it,” he said.
Trimble and Wagner both agreed that source water in this area is generally softer than that found in other areas of the country, such as the Midwest.
Wagner said if residents are concerned about the hardness of their water, water softeners are commercially available.
Although WSSC water meets safety standards, some customers experience aesthetic concerns, like slight discoloration or odors in the water. Trimble said WSSC’s work on pipes in the neighborhood can lead to temporary discoloration. Also, seasonal issues with an earthy or musty smell to the water do occur. He said the plant has the ability to treat the compounds causing the smell by using activated carbon filtration systems, but they are expensive to run.
“The cost can be $3,000 a day to run that carbon system, so at what point do you shut it off? So if I run it for a month, that’s $100,000. Can I justify that? Are we ready to turn it off?” he said.
Water quality issues came to the forefront of the nation’s minds in the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Mich. There, residents were sickened from the tap water which contained excessive amounts of lead. The lead entered the water supply by leeching out of pipes in the system. WSSC officials say this is not likely to occur here. None of the system’s waterlines are made of lead; the only areas where lead is found in the system are in the pipes connecting individual properties to the WSSC mains. Trimble said customers are aware if their lines are made of lead. He also said the utility treats its pipes to prevent any leeching.
In The Sentinel’s investigation, in 11 of the 12 samples collected from WSSC-served locations, no lead was detected (the minimum detection level is 2 ppb.) The sample from Suitland High School was found to contain 6 ppb, well under the EPA standard of 15 ppb.
Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) began a “Lead in Water Program” in 2004 as a response to public concerns about lead in pipes in Washington, D.C. Although the EPA standard in regards to lead is 15 ppb, PGCPS’s action level is 20 ppb, according to documents provided by the school.
In 2005, the school system initiated several phases to remediate lead and address water sources that tested above the EPA standards. Those phases included testing fountains and sinks within schools, outfitting water sources with filters and valving off sources that continued to test above standard after remediation.
In addition, PGCPS does not allow water from classrooms and bathroom sinks, kitchen hand wash sinks, custodial closet sinks, and library storage room sinks to be used for potable water.
“Prince George’s County Public Schools Environmental Office is committed to providing each student a safe place of learning and each employee a hazard-free place of employment,” the school system said in a statement. “Prince George’s County Public Schools will take all actions necessary to keep the school building and workplace free of known hazards that cause or are likely to trigger harm and, when available, will employ feasible means that will abate or lesson the recognized workplace hazard.”
PGCPS no longer annually tests the more than 17,000 fixtures in the school system for lead, but instead samples as needed or requested.
County leaders say from their perspective, the quality of water provided by WSSC has never been an issue. Rather, the rate structure and continually-rising rates is the main problem they are wrestling with, Councilwoman Mary Lehman said.
“Our water quality is excellent. I don’t think it gets better anywhere. The issue is their rate structure. It’s not a quality issue, it’s a price issue with them,” she said.
Trimble of WSSC said he is proud of the quality of the water produced. He said the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) inspects the plant at least quarterly, and receives monthly reports, and often uses the Patuxent plant as a model for new inspectors.
“I’m not kidding. The guy brings his new engineers here and says ‘look, this is the way it’s supposed to be. You’re not going to see this anywhere else,’” Trimble said.
Candace Rojo Keyes contributed to this report.