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Water Worries Bubble to Surface

While county says tests show no concern, confusion and worry spark demand for filters, test kits in stores.

Official water tests are winding down, but across the county, Arlington homeowners are casting a suspicious eye on the water that pours from their taps.

At county hardware stores, sales of water filters and private test kits for lead levels are taking off. At Ayers Variety and Hardware in Westover, shelves were bare on Friday afternoon, said manager Kristy Peterkin.

“We’re currently sold out” of water filters, she said. “As far as test kits, we received 48 on Monday, and they sold that day.” By the beginning of this week, the store had restocked both filters and test kits.

They were still selling, despite an announcement by County Manager Ron Carlee on Saturday that official concerns about lead levels in Arlington water were easing. After two rounds of testing water samples, he said, county staff concluded that there was “no system-wide problem.”

Early tests caused alarm, with one water samples showing lead contamination levels more than 20 times above an “action level” set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Those results were artificially high, Carlee told County Board members at their March 13 meeting, because some county staff did not follow protocol for collecting water samples.

With alarm about lead levels in water in D.C., staff members were dispatched to collect water samples for preliminary tests. One of those samples showed 342 ppb of lead.

That result, and some other preliminary test results, were not indicative of county water quality, Carlee said: They were collected from outside spigots, faucets for garden hoses that had sat unused over the winter, allowing lead from pipes four months to seep into the water.

“It should not have been done that way. It’s that simple,” said Carlee.

After testing 354 water samples taken from Arlington homes, schools, child care centers and fire hydrants, Carlee said that county health and water treatment staff are convinced that there is no lead contamination inherent in the county’s water supply.

Instead, he said, lead levels in water samples almost certainly come from lead solder and lead pipes used in older county homes.

<b>TESTS ALSO SHOWED</b> high lead levels in water samples taken at five Arlington public schools: Ashlawn and Campbell elementary schools, the H-B Woodlawn Secondary School, Wilson Community Center and Reed Community Center, home to a Head Start program.

An Ashlawn sample showed the highest lead level of any county school.

Arlington Public Schools acted to address the problem last week, shutting down water fountains at the schools and bringing in bottled water.

That seems to have cut down on possible concern, said Linda Erdos, school system spokeswoman. “We have not heard any concerns from staff, from students, from parents. I haven’t heard of young children bringing a six-pack of water bottles to school with them.”

A fast response from the schools did head off some concerns, said Nancy O’Doherty, parent of Ashlawn students. But it didn’t solve all parent problems.

“Parents don’t quite know where to go with it,” she said. “Everybody’s dealing with this at Ashlawn, but they’re just as concerned about their own homes. We drink a lot more water at home than the kids do at school.”

<b>TO COMBAT LEAD</b> contamination in water, Carlee recommended that all homeowners run their water for 60-90 seconds if it has been sitting in the tap for a long period. That effectively lowers lead levels to zero, he said.

But that “doesn’t seem like a long-term solution,” said O’Doherty. “Unless you work for the EPA, it’s hard to get a handle on it.”

She wondered whether water treatment if increasing lead levels in older homes, a question the county hopes to answer too. The question now, Carlee said, is whether chloramines, chemicals used to treat water for Arlington and the District, are increasing the likelihood that lead from pipes will seep into tap water.

County staff is conducting a third round of tests, looking at 200 water samples from county homes. “We’ve always filtered our water for taste, but my husband’s getting our water tested,” said O’Doherty.

That demand is showing up at local hardware stores. “A lot of people are calling for lead test kits, and we can’t get them,” said Jose Rodriguez, owner of Virginia Hardware Company. “I haven’t been able to find a supplier.”