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Lawmakers Wrestle With How to Address Arsenic Contamination in Private Wells

There is no dispute that contaminants like lead and arsenic, often found in private water supplies, can cause serious health problems. But Maine lawmakers are struggling with how best to address the problem of unsafe drinking water in private wells, which are not tested as frequently or as comprehensively as public water supplies.

Many Mainers get their water from their own wells, and studies have shown many of those private wells have unsafe levels of lead and arsenic and other contaminants. In some parts of the state as many as half of them are well above recommended levels.

Rep. Karen Vachon, a Republican from Scarborough, has introduced legislation to set testing standards for private wells. She says she did so after seeing the results of tests in her community, which found that more than 38 percent had unsafe levels of arsenic.

“I was shocked when I first learned about how many homes in my town had arsenic-contaminated water,” she says.

Arsenic in drinking water can harm brain development in young children and cause various health problems, including skin and lung cancers. The National Cancer Institute believes the high level of arsenic in Maine well-water is a factor in Maine’s bladder cancer rate being 20 percent higher than the national level.

Lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee heard from several Mainers who have high levels of contaminants in their home wells.

Wendy Brennan of Mt. Vernon says it was only by chance that she had her well tested. Her daughter wanted the T-shirt being given away by the academic group conducting a study of well-water in Maine.

“I was shocked to learn the level was 57 parts per million — the EPA [standard] is 10 parts per million. For eight years my family had been using arsenic-laden water for cooking, bathing and drinking,” she says.

Brennan says her family has installed a filtration system that removes most of the contaminants, but she says members of her family have already been adversely affected. She urged lawmakers expand education and remediation efforts.

Gail Carlson, who teaches environmental policy at Colby College, says remediation can get expensive.

“There isn’t a lot of information that is given about the options for remediation. There are several: You can do a tap filter, an under-the-sink filter or a whole house filter, which of course would be the gold standard, but those cost thousands of dollars,” she says.

The proposed legislation requires the Department of Health and Human Services to develop test standards and create outreach programs to educate homeowners about the potential health problems caused by contaminants in their wells. It focuses on the Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory within the department to accomplish many of the goals, even though the lab does not do all the water testing in the state.

Private labs also do water quality tests. As currently written the bill calls for testing for arsenic, uranium, manganese, fluoride and radon.

Zachary Smith of Northeast Laboratory Services says the testing should be broader.

“A water test under LD 454 as currently written would assure private homeowners their water is safe for human consumption when in fact it may be hazardously contaminated with lead, E. coli, copper and many other materials,” he says.

Smith says private labs should also be included in the strategy to educate and remediate for the health-related issues associated with arsenic and lead. The committee is also considering several other related bills dealing with exposure to contaminants, including how to prevent it in the first place.