Study measures arsenic contamination in wells

by Rachel Pakianathan | 1/12/18 2:05am

Researchers in the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program have been raising awareness about the effects of arsenic in private wells in New Hampshire through websites and community well testing events.

Using data from the U.S. Geological Survey, New Hampshire state officials have estimated that one out of five wells have a high probability of containing arsenic over the maximum recommended level.

Arsenic in ground water exists at higher concentrations in the southeast portion of the state, according to Stephen Roy, manager of the Groundwater Permitting technical group at the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. Several public wells have recorded arsenic contamination levels as high as 50 parts per billion, five times the state’s limit of 10 ppb, in accordance with EPA guidelines.

Arsenic poisoning can cause vomiting, increased risk of cancer and, in extreme cases, death, according to the World Health Organization.

“The problem is for well water and private water sources that aren’t regulated,” Director of Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program Bruce Stanton said.

Kathrin Lawlor, the program’s community engagement coordinator, said that approximately 46 percent of New Hampshire residents access their water from private wells. The researchers used data from the U.S. Geological Survey to determine the high proportion of contaminated wells, she said.

Stanton said arsenic naturally occurs in certain types of bedrock that underlie the state of New Hampshire.

In addition to conducting research, the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program has been holding community well-testing events. Lawlor said that engagement efforts have increased the number of wells tested but have not necessarily increased treatment due to barriers such as convenience and cost. While 74 percent of people understood their lab results, only 64 percent understood what to do, she said.

“One of the things we’re doing is working with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services to make the public more aware of the problem, especially private well owners,” Stanton said.

As a result, the College and state organizations both have websites designed to increase education about arsenic, called “Arsenic and You” and “Be Well Informed.” The latter of which includes a tool allowing people to enter well test results and receive customized treatment options.

Treatment can include filtering well water, buying a reverse osmosis machine or only drinking bottled water.

“A lot of people mean to test their wells but they never get around to testing their wells,” Lawlor said. “We discovered you really need extensive communication and then a testing event, and that seems to raise people’s overall testing of their wells.”

Stanton encourages anyone with a private well to test frequently for contaminants, which can also include bacteria, radon and even uranium.

“It’s tough sometimes to convince people that arsenic — something that’s odorless, colorless and tasteless — is having an adverse health effect,” he said.

He added that although certain areas are prone to higher concentrations of arsenic in ground water, wells have been found all over the state that contain drinking water with high levels of arsenic.

The EPA maximum contaminant level does not necessarily indicate a safe level of exposure, said Paul Susca, who works in the New Hampshire Environmental Services’ Drinking Water Source Protection Program.

Correction Appended (Jan. 13, 2017):

An earlier version of the Jan. 12 article "Study measures arsenic contamination in wells" misstated the group that found the elevated likelihood of high levels of arsenic in wells. New Hampshire state officials determined the rate based on estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey.