Arsenic in wells is Science Cafe topic

BAR HARBOR — “Is There Arsenic in Your Drinking Water?” will be the subject of an MDI Science Café held Monday, July 8, at 5 p.m. at the MDI Biological Laboratory.

The presence of arsenic in well water is a significant public health threat in Maine. Though Mainers rely heavily on private wells, few have their water tested for arsenic, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has designated as the environmental contaminant with the biggest impact on human health.

Long-term exposure, even at low levels, can lead to severe health problems, including cancer; diabetes; heart disease; and reproductive, developmental and cognitive problems, including lower IQs in children. Arsenic is a particular problem in the coastal “arsenic belt,” where up to 60 percent of wells have levels that exceed EPA limits.

The presentation will be delivered by Jane E. Disney, senior staff scientist and director of education at MDIBL, and Bruce Stanton, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Dartmouth’s medical school. Stanton is also the former director and current project leader of the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program and a visiting scientist at MDIBL.

Disney and Stanton will talk about the threat posed by arsenic and about a federally funded program — the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program — to address the threat in Maine and New Hampshire. The SEPA program is a five-year, $1.2 million program titled “Data to Action: A Secondary School-Based Citizen Science Project to Address Arsenic Contamination of Well Water.”

“The SEPA program takes advantage of the fact that students are more likely to expand their scientific inquiry skills and retain what they learn when the data have relevance,” Disney said. “The data they collect will be meaningful for them and their families, as well as for the larger community. Also, the use of scientist-mentors from the state’s colleges and universities takes advantage of Maine’s abundance of scientific talent.”

Disney is director and principal investigator and Stanton is associate director of the program, which is funded through the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, an institute of the National Institutes of Health. The program is a collaboration between the MDI Biological Laboratory and Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

The SEPA program is an outgrowth of an earlier EPA-sponsored program, “All About Arsenic,” which was also a collaboration between the laboratory and Dartmouth. While that program succeeded in educating the community about the arsenic threat, it also identified a need for improved data literacy. The aim of the new program is to help teachers and students make sense of the data they collect and to communicate their findings to the public.

The testing results will be provided to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to help the agency monitor the extent of arsenic exposure in the state and to implement mitigation strategies.

Contact 288-3147.

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