Housatonic Water Works, health board downplay lead, copper levels in water, but some still worry

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GREAT BARRINGTON — The message from residents in Housatonic who received a disturbing letter warning them of increased lead and copper in their water.

The letter, from the Housatonic Water Works company, warned that tests in the area had shown high levels of copper and lead in the water.

On Monday, Water Works treasurer James Mercer told The Eagle the fears were overblown.

"People think this is like Flint, Michigan," he said. "But this is nothing like that."

Mercer said that there could be any number of reasons for the elevated levels of metal in the water. He pointed to new copper piping in newer homes where the pipes are held together with lead solder as a possible culprit. And, he added, of the 20 homes that reported elevated metal readings, three of the tests have already been found to have errors.

High lead levels in water can cause serious health problems if left untreated. The Environmental Protection Agency warns the public that children are especially at risk.

Run cold water

But the Great Barrington Board of Health, along with the Housatonic Water Works, said that there was nothing to fear as long as Housatonic residents take precautions.

"The best thing to do is to run cold water for 30 seconds," said Board of Health Chairwoman Claudia Ryan. "Then use that water for drinking and cooking."

Warm or hot water is OK for bathing and cleaning, she said. But when cold water sits in pipes for a long period of time, it can warm up and absorb lead and copper in the piping. That leads to the elevated levels.

Ryan added that all indications are that the lead is coming from residents' homes, not the water company.

"With these old pipes in these old homes," she said, "The lead can leech into the water more easily."

Mercer echoed that point. He showed The Eagle examples of the piping and corrosion. When the pipes no longer have a "sheen" to them, he explained, the water out of the pipes will be contaminated. He also showed the "corporation," or pipe connecter. Mercer stressed that these connectors do not have lead in them.

Not like Flint

Lead doesn't naturally occur in the water the Water Works uses for the town, Mercer explained, but rather is picked up in the pipes over time. He said that in Flint the water had low pH levels, which makes the water more acidic. The more acidic the water, the more easily it picks up metals.

"The water in Housatonic is not like that," Mercer said. Nor, he said, is the water in the rest of the company's service area: "The Housatonic section of Great Barrington, from Division Street north, and some customers in West Stockbridge [Williamsville] and Stockbridge [Glendale]."

Concerns abound

Residents in other parts of Great Barrington, such as Christian Hill Road, are not in the service area.

But residents are not convinced of the safety of the water. At the Housie Market Café in the village center, owner Amy Hagerty said she had concerns.

"I don't like telling people who ask for a glass of water that I'd rather they didn't," she said. "It's not good for business."

Dagan Diaz said he was unconvinced with the explanation the Water Works and Board of Health had given regarding the safety of the water. He urged Water Works customers to file complaints with the state to get the regulatory engine involved.

"I've been on the phone today with the Great Barrington health agent, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, and the Massachusetts utilities investigators office," Diaz said. "I'm still trying to figure out if it's the pipes in our homes or the main service line."

No matter where the source of the lead, Hagerty echoed the worries of many in the area about the effects on the village's children.

"There are so many kids in this community," she said. "I'm concerned about the ripple effect."


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