By: Dr. William Sturrock
Drink Waters Out of Thine Own Cistern – As Long As You Have Tested for Arsenic!
Some of you may recognize the beginning of this entry from the Book of Proverbs, and when I first read it I appreciated its wisdom regarding self-sufficiency and fidelity. Now with the growing concern about the safety of our drinking water, I see a public health message that I’m not sure the original author intended. While we all may have heard about the tribulations that the city of Flint Michigan has suffered with lead, there is another drinking water problem that is less well known here in Maine.
A Columbia University study in 2012 showed that as many as 1 out of 10 Mainers could be drinking water from wells contaminated by arsenic. According to the Maine Center for Disease Control, fewer than half of Maine’s private wells have been tested for this toxin that can acutely cause nausea, stomach pain, and peripheral nerve numbness and tingling. Longer term exposure has been liked to cancers of the skin, bladder and lungs, as well as diabetes. A 2014 study also linked arsenate compounds to developmental delays in children including lower IQ’s.
Where is arsenic coming from? In Maine, unlike some other states, it is generally not from industrial pollution, pesticide run-off, or mining residue. Instead it is a naturally occurring mineral found in the soil and the bedrock that is dissolved in the ground-water. In fact, according to a 2012 US Geologic Survey, there is an ‘Arsenic Belt’ that stretches from Central Maine to our eastern border with Canada. Up to 25% of the wells tested in this zone exceed the Federal safe limit for arsenic of 10 mcg/liter.
In May of this year the Maine House of Representatives voted to establish a fund for testing and for education on the importance of testing for arsenic. However, a similar bill in 2015 was vetoed by Governor LePage who reportedly was concerned about a $10 fee attached to water testing done by the state lab that would be designated for the outreach efforts. Like other public health bills, it is at risk for another veto this session. Most of us with public health training understand that keeping the status quo with the low percentage of wells that get tested is putting real Mainers at risk for real disease, and do not have a preference on which cistern the funding stream comes, as long as it flows!
1. What should I do if I have a well?
ANS: Experts advise that unless you have had a test specifically showing a safe level of arsenic, you should submit a sample, either to a local commercial lab or to the State of Maine lab in Augusta every 3-5 years. There is a helpful website at maine.gov, division of public health systems.
2. What should I do if my levels exceed the safe target?
ANS: You may use the water for bathing and dishwashing but should be drinking bottled water. You may also want to inquire about filtration systems.