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Environmental Factor, July 2012

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SRP scientist Brian Jackson engages his community about arsenic

By Heather King

Joseph Ayotte of the U.S. Geological Survey, Paul Susca of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, and Brian Jackson, Ph.D.

The panelists sat informally with the audience at The Barley House restaurant, as they answered questions about arsenic and how people can make their families’ drinking water safer. Shown, left to right, are Ayotte, Susca, and Jackson. (Photo courtesy of Dartmouth SRP)

Attendees at “Arsenic In Our Environment: Are Levels Unsafe?” event

The event drew a capacity crowd of people, who enjoyed refreshments while scientists described their field and lab work, as well as resources for learning and doing more about arsenic in well water. (Photo courtesy of Dartmouth SRP)

On the evening of June 20, Brian Jackson, Ph.D., of the NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) at Dartmouth College, met up with fellow scientists Joseph Ayotte of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Paul Susca of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (NHDES) for an informal gathering at a popular local restaurant. They were joined by a packed house of Concord, N.H., residents who came to take part in a Science Café New Hampshire discussion titled “Arsenic In Our Environment: Are Levels Unsafe?” and to learn about the importance of arsenic testing for private wells.

A toxic combination of rock, water, and wells

Arsenic, a deadly poison that kills quickly at high doses, can also cause harm in the parts-per-billion (ppb) range. Long term exposure to low levels of arsenic in drinking water has been associated with a range of health problems from cancer to immune system problems and reproductive defects.

Jackson, director of the Trace Metal Analysis Core facility at Dartmouth, specializes in characterizing inorganic environmental contaminants, such as arsenic, from samples ranging from organic nutrition bars to bedrock. In New Hampshire, arsenic in bedrock is a big concern, because over half a million of its citizens drink from private wells drilled into and around that rock, and these wells are not regulated or monitored by any state laws or other agencies.

Ayotte, a hydrologist who studies groundwater quality in New Hampshire, can also attest to the troublesome combination of low pH and low oxygen in the water flowing across those rocks that allows it to carry arsenic into drinking wells at levels well above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard of 10 ppb.

Susca, who supervises the NHDES Drinking Water Source Protection Program, knows how much effort goes into keeping the New Hampshire water supply safe. He also understands that informed and active citizens are the key to preventing health issues related to arsenic contaminated private wells.

High-stakes community outreach

Jackson and fellow Science Café panelists were pleased to have this opportunity to come together and demonstrate a common concern for public health, by explaining, directly to community members, the importance of having private wells tested for arsenic. Participating in local, community events of this kind is a major focus of the Dartmouth SRP, which has an active Research Translation program that sponsors events such as risk workshops and conferences, and has even produced a short film, “In Small Doses: Arsenic,” to inform the community about well water testing. 


Bidirectional communication

Bidirectional communication and collaboration between the SRP and federal and state agencies, such as the USGS and NHDES, was clear in the teamwork shown by the panelists, but their ultimate goal was to foster collaboration with the public. Although the science and technology behind the story of well water arsenic involves technical research and complex public policy, the ultimate message is one for the community — “Protect your family. Test your well.”

Effective outreach does more than teach. It gets people to collect samples of their tap water and take them in to be analyzed — the critical step in translating research into improved human health. Several people in attendance also took a survey, providing important information about their well water use that can feed back into the research being done.

Although many scientific programs are measured by prestigious journal publications and conference lectures, and the Dartmouth SRP group can boast plenty of both, this program also has keen insight into the importance of community engagement. In participating in this event, they remind fellow scientists that sometimes a visit to The Barley House restaurant can have a higher impact than any paper.

(Heather King, Ph.D., is an environmental health writer for MDB, Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Superfund Research Program.)

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