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Superfund film raises awareness of well water arsenic

By Angela Spivey
December 2010

Celia Chen
Dartmouth SRP researcher Celia Chen, Ph.D., leads a team of Superfund researchers who are applying basic research in an effort to improve public health. (Photo courtesy of Michael Yacavone)

Laurie Rardin
Rardin is working to ensure that as many citizens and public health specialists as possible become aware of arsenic in the region's groundwater. (Photo courtesy of Laurie Rardin)

Dartmouth College's Superfund Research Program (SRP), funded by a grant from NIEHS, produced a film that is motivating homeowners in New Hampshire, Maine, and other parts of New England to test their private wells for arsenic contamination. Titled "In Small Doses: Arsenic," the short film draws attention to the high levels of naturally occurring arsenic in the area and is an effective way to spread the message to a large audience.

Linked video: Researchers translate basic research into prevention with film on arsenic. (Opens in new window)

"What began as an idea to translate our research on the effects of low dose arsenic on the immune system became a highly successful communication tool with a specific message benefiting the private well community," said Laurie Rardin, who headed the effort. The Dartmouth SRP held screenings for the film at the NIEHS 2009 SRP Annual Meeting in New York City and at an independent theater in Concord, N.H. Rardin has also shown the film at meetings for well water experts, groundwater stakeholders and state health officials. She is pleased with the amount of publicity it has received. In addition, the film also appears on Dartmouth's website and YouTube.

"There has been trickle-down coverage ever since the premiere, and the momentum is growing," Rardin explained. "Several towns in New Hampshire are considering passing local ordinances requiring private well testing for arsenic, and many are showing the film on their local cable TV stations." She adds, "We are addressing a specific community need, along with highlighting SRP research."

Translating research into primary prevention

The film serves an important function because many well owners are not aware of the need to test for arsenic, which is odorless, tasteless, and not commonly thought of as a drinking water contaminant. According to Rardin, approximately 40 percent of the residents of New Hampshire use private wells as their source for household drinking water, but federal law does not require private well water testing.

As highlighted in the movie, Shari and Steve deYoung of Bow, N.H., purchased the $15 test kit and learned that their well water contained arsenic levels higher than considered safe for long-term exposure. They resolved the problem by installing a simple, under-the-sink unit to remove the pollutant from their drinking water.

Drinking water testing kits are available through state environmental agencies or health departments in all New England states. Once the results are in hand, homeowners can take action. The film reinforced this message with interviews of experts including Jane Downing, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency's New England Drinking Water Branch; Bernie Lucey, senior engineer of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services; Joe Ayotte from the United States Geological Survey; and scientific experts from Dartmouth.

Building on this successful model, the Dartmouth SRP is now considering producing a film about mercury, the program's other major research area. "If you choose to use a video format for research translation, it is important that you have a specific message for a specific audience and that you are giving viewers something to do to address the situation," Rardin urged. "Conveying the message that private well owners need to protect their health by testing their water for arsenic gave us the perfect opportunity to jump into the movie-making business."

(Angela Spivey is a contract science writer for the NIEHS Superfund Research Program.)

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