Courtland water high in fluoride, lead

Published 8:23 pm Monday, November 23, 2020

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The town of Courtland’s drinking water has tested above the federal limit for fluoride and lead.

Water samples taken Oct. 21 from each of the town’s three wells averaged 4.42 parts per million for fluoride, which exceeds the federal 4 ppm maximum contaminant level.

According to Dixon Tucker, district engineer for the Virginia Department of Health’s office of drinking water, the town has a history of naturally high fluoride in its drinking water, and was subject to a state consent order from 2005 through 2014 to reduce its levels. But this is the first year since Courtland began testing its water in 1993 that it’s seen lead results in excess of the 15 parts per billion federal limit.

Town-wide, Courtland’s water system has measured at 43.5 ppb for lead based on samples taken Sept. 22. According to Tucker, this figure is based on the 90th percentile of samples, meaning the nine highest readings out of 10 samples in Courtland’s case. Individual test site results ranged from less than 2 ppb to 81.4 ppb.

Lead, a toxic heavy metal, can enter drinking water when lead-containing plumbing materials corrode. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia, weakness and damage to the kidneys and brain. It is particularly dangerous to children and pregnant women, as even at low levels, childhood lead exposure can lead to brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems and hearing and speech problems.

Fluoride overexposure isn’t quite so hazardous. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, adults exposed to excessive fluoride levels over a lifetime may have increased likelihood of bone fractures, while children age 8 and younger have an increased chance of developing pits in their tooth enamel, along with a range of cosmetic effects on teeth.

Tucker discussed the lead results with town officials on Oct. 15. For the time being, the only enforcement action the VDH has decided to take is to require Courtland to test its water more frequently — quarterly for fluoride and every six months for lead.

“They may test out of needing to do anything besides monitoring,” Tucker said.

If two six-month sampling events show lead values below the federal maximum, the town will be permitted to reduce its lead testing frequency to once a year. Prior to the most recent test, the town had been testing for lead only once every three years, the least frequent interval allowed by law.

Asked to speculate on why Courtland’s lead was suddenly so high, Tucker said in looking at the sample sites it appears several may have been unoccupied dwellings. As such, the sampled water may have been sitting in pipes for weeks or months rather than flowing. If those pipes contained lead, that could account for the high readings, he said.

Currently, Courtland doesn’t provide any type of water treatment at either of its two active wells or the third, which is reserved for emergency use.

“The town’s team is working closely with the Department of Drinking Water to isolate the source of the results and have plans in place to bring the issues to a positive close,” according to a statement issued via email by the Town of Courtland after a call to the mayor, Danny Williams. “The town continues to comply with all regulations for testing and public notification as required by code.”