LUTHERVILLE, Md. - More than 80,000 people in an area from Lutherville down to the Baltimore City line will be getting notices over the next several weeks, informing them of unsafe levels of a potentially dangerous chemical were found in their drinking water.
Baltimore City operates the water distribution system; its department of public works is preparing to notify everyone who lives in the affected area.
Certain people may be at an increased risk – such as people with compromised immune systems, infants, pregnant women, and the elderly; the head of the city's Department of Public Works says they might want to seek advice from their doctor.
But he also says this is not an emergency, and people don't need to start boiling water.
Jen Colbert of Lutherville has a water filter installed under her sink.
"I don't want to spend the money on buying bottled water but I definitely don't trust drinking it directly from the faucet," Colbert said.
That's because several years ago she noticed a strong chlorine smell in the water from her tap.
"It burnt my nose," she said. "The same day I put water down for my dogs to drink and they backed away from it and refused to drink it."
Now she's learned of another reason to keep filtering.
"I saw that there was a acidity level or something going on with our water," Colbert said.
That something is called Haloacetic Acids, or HAA5. Most of the area's water comes from reservoirs; it's then treated with chemicals like chlorine. But the chlorine can combine with organic materials that form in water systems – such as the century-old pipes all around Baltimore.
That can produce HAA5.
The Department of Public Works monitors the level of the chemical in locations all around the area.
Quarterly sampling from October 2012 to September 2013 at one of those monitors – in Lutherville – showed a level of HAA5 in the water averaged 62 parts per billion. The federally mandated limit is 60 parts per billion.
Exposure to HAA5 may increase the chance of miscarriage for pregnant women. And long term exposure to high levels may cause an increased risk of cancer.
In a statement, the head of the Department of Public Works said: "Although this incident was not an emergency, our customers have the right to know what happened and what we are doing to correct the situation."
Jen Colbert says she'll just keep filtering. "When it comes to the drinking water we always filter everything," she said. "We keep filtered water in the refrigerator. If we're making coffee we filter the water. I put filtered water down for the dogs to drink and of course my kids drink filtered water."
The National Resource Defense Council says those filters are effective in eliminating HAA5 from drinking water.
The Department of Public Works says since the level was above 60 parts per billion, more recent monitoring has shown that it has dropped below that.
Notices about the HAA5 level will be included with the next water bill for people in the affected area.
They have already started to increase how much they mix the water in their storage tanks; that could lower the level of the chemical. There is a multi-billion dollar project to replace aging pipes all around the system, but that process will take several years.