When Baltimore officials last week announced they’d found a health-harming parasite in the Druid Lake reservoir – warning certain vulnerable groups to avoid or boil tap water – they took pains to include reassuring context.
The amount of cryptosporidium detected, they said, was “low level,” found during “routine monthly sampling.”
The term “routine” was a stretch, though, because this kind of sampling at Baltimore’s largest treated-water reservoir had been conducted only once before.
“This is the second monthly testing that we’ve conducted,” acknowledged Interim Public Works Director Richard Luna at the news conference.
The sampling was ordered last May by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a crackdown after DPW missed multiple deadlines – across many years – to build underground tanks to store drinking water at Druid Lake and Lake Ashburton.
Currently, the open-air reservoirs are unprotected from contaminants and runoff.
Animal feces is one potential source of cryptosporidium and giardia – parasites widely found in rivers and lakes that can cause diarrhea, vomiting and other symptoms.
The EPA ordered Baltimore to start testing the water after it missed multiple deadlines to build underground storage tanks.
DPW was told to finish by the end of this year the installation of underground tanks to store the drinking water. (The agency says it’s on track to do so.)
As part of that order, DPW was required to begin sampling the reservoir water because EPA officials reportedly found the agency reluctant to conduct effective monitoring.
Until the tank project is completed, there is not much Baltimore can do to protect those among the 1.8 million users of the regional water system who are at risk for ingesting cryptosporidium.
That’s because the parasite is highly resistant to chlorination and won’t be filtered out of the open-air reservoirs.
“They can’t kill all the geese, and they can’t put a tarp over Druid Lake” – Water management official.
“They can’t kill all the geese, and they can’t put a tarp over Druid Lake,” cracked a high-level municipal official involved in water management, who asked for anonymity.
The EPA order in May contained a no-nonsense message to DPW:
“Respondent shall collect monthly samples for cryptosporidium and giardia at the outlet of the Druid Lake Reservoir and Ashburton Reservoir,” the May 15 EPA legal action decreed.
“Within one hour of receiving results indicating” presence of either parasite, DPW was instructed to inform the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), EPA and a special emergency number for oil, chemical, radiological or biological discharges into the environment.
Two Day Delay
In marked contrast to the urgent tone of the EPA order was the reaction of city officials to the discovery of cryptosporidium in Druid Lake.
“Our drinking water is safe for the general population,” Mayor Brandon Scott tweeted last Thursday.
For those with special concerns (including parents with children, seniors and persons with compromised immune systems), Scott advised them to “please follow guidance from @BaltimoreDPW if you fall within the at-risk populations.”
A longtime resident who is disabled and immunocompromised found the city’s response – reassuring “the general population” – to be “devastatingly insufficient.”
“They continue to implicitly separate elders, children and disabled people from that category, providing far less information and assistance in a far less timely way to the most vulnerable Baltimoreans,” said Sharyn Blum, whose Twitter account has shared information and galvanized discontent about the situation from city and county residents.
Blum said the Scott administration’s handling of the matter has “left much of the city unaware that there is a water crisis at all.”
The cryptosporidium disclosure on Thursday came two days after the positive test results came back from the lab. It was not until Saturday that DPW circulated a lengthier release.
That release repeated the message that the levels found “do not pose an immediate health risk to the general public,” but included a link to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) page. That site sums up the public health implications of cryptosporidium, or crypto, more plainly:
“Anyone can get sick with crypto, but people with weakened immune systems are more likely to have severe and potentially life-threatening symptoms,” the CDC notes.
“Anyone can get sick from crypto, but people with weakened immune systems are more likely to have severe and potentially life-threatening symptoms” – CDC website.
Among those most at risk for becoming infected with cryptosporidium are children who attend childcare centers, pregnant women and older adults, the CDC said.
Children and pregnant women are more likely to get dehydrated because of their diarrhea and should drink plenty of fluids, the CDC advises.
While those who are generally healthy recover after a few days, the CDC said, people with severely weakened immune systems – such as those with HIV/AIDS, inherited diseases that affect the immune system, and cancer and transplant patients who are taking immunosuppressive drugs – are at special risk.
Together with people who contracted Covid-19 and potentially have compromised immune systems, these categories make the crypto finding in Baltimore’s water supply a serious cause for concern for the general public, Blum argued.
As Blum and others have noted in recent days, the city has a documented history of failing to promptly notify residents about water system contamination.
Baltimore was cited for violating state and federal notification requirements after it discovered E. coli in city water last year.
“There were a lot of lessons learned,” then-DPW Director Jason Mitchell said at a City Council hearing about the bobbled response to the E.coli incident.
No Robocalls or Texts
While reporters were being told about the crypto finding at a Thursday morning Zoom call, there was nothing on the DPW website or on social media.
Nor were text or robocall alerts sent out on the BMORE Alert system that the city uses to warn residents about flash-flooding during storms or the enforcement of a summer youth curfew.
The municipal water official found the city’s messaging sorely lacking.
“It’s amazing how little they’ve been saying about it,” the official remarked to The Brew.
“We were getting emails about crypto, but there was nothing going out to the general public.”
The affected area includes central, northeastern and southwestern parts of Baltimore City; central, eastern and southern parts of Baltimore County; and a smaller portion of eastern Howard County.
The city’s INTERACTIVE MAP provides more detail on who is and isn’t impacted.
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