Upcountry Maui water
is still eliciting health
WAILUKU >> Pukalani resident Sharon Elston said she hasn't used her tap water for cooking, drinking or bathing for more than a year because of skin irritation and lung congestion she blames on the water.
Instead, Elston has been buying bottled water for cooking and drinking, and hauling five-gallon containers of water for bathing from friends' homes outside the Upcountry region.
"It's a frustrating situation," she said. "This is something we live with every single waking hour of our day."
Government officials, she said, are taking too long to solve the problem.
More than 15 months after complaints began about additives causing skin irritation to residents on the Upcountry water system from Haiku to Ulupalakua, scores of people say they're still itching and some have complained about burning eyes and respiratory ailments.
Hoping to find a remedy, county water officials in April replaced the corrosion inhibitor zinc orthophosphate that had been in use since June 2001.
Residents said they're still experiencing health problems and want the county to halt using the new corrosion inhibitor, phosphoric acid.
County officials said they can't without facing potential fines of up to $25,000 a day from the federal government for failing to meet acceptable lead standards in drinking water.
County water officials said they have been using corrosion inhibitors to coat water pipes because of higher than acceptable levels of lead in the drinking water of some homes in Upcountry Maui.
State health officials believe the primary source of lead appears to be the water in homes that have lead-solder plumbing.
Lead-solder plumbing was banned in 1986 and taken off the market by 1988.
County officials estimate 500 of 11,000 homes in Upcountry Maui have higher than the acceptable levels of lead in drinking water, or 15 parts per billion.
A 1997 study showed that 2.2 percent of young children living in central Maui had elevated levels of lead in their blood, while 6.7 percent of children the same age in the Upcountry area had high levels of lead, according to the state.
In the latest test last August, the Upper Kula system failed with 41 parts per billion of lead, county water spokeswoman Jackie Takakura said.
Takakura said state safe drinking water officials wanted the county to double the dose of phosphoric acid or hire a consultant.
Accumulations of lead in the body can cause a number of health problems, including miscarriages and birth defects.
Upcountry water, relying mainly on stream sources, some winding through eucalyptus forests, tends to be more acidic and corrode the lead solder off pipes in homes, county water officials say.
Dr. Lorrin Pang, the state health administrator on Maui, said he believes there is something in the water system that is causing the irritation and a study needs to be done to verify if the source of the irritation is phosphoric acid.
Pang said by next week, he expects to complete gathering names of Upcountry test volunteers who would bathe in water with phosphoric acid and others who would bathe in water without the corrosion inhibitor.
The volunteers won't know which water contains the inhibitor, he said.
The county has also obtained a $497,000 grant to reduce the lead content in homes that exceed acceptable levels.
Pang said part of the work may involve confirming results of prior tests that indicated the homes most at risk were built between 1982 and 1988, then employing measures to reduce the lead content of pipes in those homes.
He said homes with lead soldering earlier than 1982 are believed to have low levels of lead because it has already been leached out of the pipes.
Elston said even if a corrosion inhibitor is shown to cause the irritation, there seems no clear procedure established to halt its use.
"It's really a scary scene," she said. "It's a possibility we may not see the light at the end of tunnel for some time to come."