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Environmental Factor, January 2013

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Grassroots well water testing initiative reveals high levels of arsenic and radon

By Sara Mishamandani

Christine Bowman talking with a homeowner

Christine Bowman, right, a DES employee who works in the Municipal Water group, helped a homeowner understand options for reducing exposure, at the well water forum in November 2012. (Photo courtesy of Steve Wingate)

Steve Wingate and Nancy Piper

Steve Wingate, left, and Nancy Piper, of the TCC, worked with Dartmouth SRP to raise awareness of the need for well testing. (Photo courtesy of Steve Wingate)

A recent push to test well water revealed high levels of arsenic and radon in homes throughout the Tuftonboro, N.H., community. Following a presentation in June 2012 by the Dartmouth College Superfund Research Program (SRP) Community Engagement Core (CEC) to the Town of Tuftonboro Board of Selectmen about the importance of regular well testing, the Tuftonboro Conservation Commission (TCC) led an effort to increase well testing rates in the region.

 In New Hampshire, one in every five wells has more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic, which is above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard for safety. A new report released Dec. 4, 2012, by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) shows that low levels of arsenic in drinking water is much more widespread. The researchers found that nearly 40 percent of New Hampshire’s groundwater likely contains at least low levels of naturally occurring arsenic.

The well testing initiative in Tuftonboro

In partnership with the Dartmouth CEC and the N.H. Department of Environmental Services (DES), the commission made it easier for residents to test their water, by providing a drop-off location and then delivering samples to the state lab. To publicize the well water testing opportunity, they wrote articles for the town newsletter and local newspapers, and placed notices in the town post offices, with information about the health risks associated with elements commonly found in N.H. wells.

After testing, results were sent directly to the residents. In October 2012, the Dartmouth CEC presented the collective results, which showed that 34 percent of samples exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level for arsenic, and 25 percent of the samples were above the advisory level for radon.

Due to these high levels, DES hosted a forum Nov. 13 to allow residents to ask questions about their test results and remediation options. The Dartmouth CEC continues to work with the residents in the community, informing them of the importance of regular well testing and providing them with options to reduce exposure to arsenic and radon from well water.

“Most local residents aren’t informed about the health effects and the need to test for arsenic when their water is tested,” said Steve Wingate, a member of the TCC and a local resident. “Dartmouth has helped us with technical information, and can ‘talk the talk’ where we struggle with informing residents.”

Reaching out to others

Dartmouth SRP researcher Bruce Stanton, Ph.D., was featured in a public radio report, after the new study from the USGS was published. Stanton explained that these levels could be affecting people’s health.

“Some preliminary studies show that these very low arsenic exposures could be making people more susceptible to lung infections,” said Stanton. “The bottom line is there’s not a lot of research at these low levels, we’re beginning to do research, and we are finding significant effects.”

In the radio report, Stanton added that the safest thing to do, for people concerned about water quality, is to get their wells tested.

Dartmouth SRP has created a ten-minute video about the risks associated with exposure to potentially harmful amounts of arsenic in private well water. The video includes information about how arsenic moves into groundwater, how it is detected, and what can be done to remove it.

(Sara Mishamandani is a research and communication specialist for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Superfund Research Program, Worker Education and Training Program, and Division of Extramural Research and Training.)

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