BAR HARBOR — A community meeting entitled “What’s in Your Drinking Water?” to educate the public about the dangers of arsenic in drinking water will be hosted by the MDI Biological Laboratory at its Center for Science Entrepreneurship on Tuesday, April 18, from 5-6:30 p.m.
Arsenic has more impact on human health than any other environmental contaminant, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It is a particular problem in Maine, where water from up to 10 percent of residential wells has high arsenic levels. In the coastal “arsenic belt,” that number can reach 60 percent. Fewer than half of Maine’s private wells are tested.
Arsenic is a particular problem in Hancock County, which is among the Maine counties with the highest arsenic levels. Compounding the problem is the fact that the majority of Hancock County residents – 82 percent – get their water from wells, compared to a state average of 56 percent. Regulations require that public water be treated to reduce arsenic, but private wells are not regulated.
“It’s really important to test,” said Anna Farrell, Maine education coordinator for the EPA-funded All about Arsenic program, the sponsor of the meeting.
“Pockets of Maine are arsenic hot spots because arsenic leaches from the bedrock. The concentrations aren’t predictable: your well may have high arsenic, but your neighbor’s may not. Without testing, it’s impossible to know.”
Even low levels of arsenic have been linked to cancer, diabetes, heart disease and reproductive and developmental problems, including lower IQs.
The community meeting will discuss how to test for arsenic, arsenic remediation strategies and where to find financial help to mitigate an arsenic problem.
The goal of All about Arsenic is to create a national model to help schools and community organizations address the public health risks of exposure to toxic contaminants in drinking water, with a focus on arsenic.
The EPA-funded program is led by Jane Disney, senior staff scientist and director of education at the MDI Biological Laboratory, and Bruce A. Stanton, a visiting professor at the laboratory, director of the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program and a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine.
The program is an outgrowth of a national summit organized by Stanton on the environmental and health consequences of arsenic held at the MDI Biological Laboratory in 2014.
The program brings teachers, students and community health partners from Maine and New Hampshire together to monitor well water from students’ homes for arsenic. Seven schools are participating – four in Maine, including Mount Desert Island High School, Trenton Elementary School, Blue Hill Consolidated School and Surry Elementary School, and three in New Hampshire, which also has high levels of arsenic in residential wells.
The meeting will take the format of presentation of data from tests on residential wells conducted by more than 400 students, with a focus on those from Mount Desert Island, followed by an informal panel discussion and question-and-answer session. The panel will consist of researchers and educators, including Disney and Sarah R. Hall, an earth sciences professor at College of the Atlantic.
“The program has been very successful,” Disney said. “One of the major barriers in mitigating the effects of arsenic is that homeowners don’t test their wells. In the program, testing is integrated into the curriculum: the students do it as part of their homework. It’s a model that could be replicated anywhere, with arsenic or with other contaminants, including lead and uranium.”