When Loree Ross had a new well drilled several years ago at her home in Danforth, she could have saved a few bucks by testing it only for bacteria. But she ordered a full workup.
“I remember saying to my husband, ‘Wouldn’t you want to know if your water was full of arsenic?” she said.
It was. The test results showed about 1,600 micrograms per liter, an astounding 160 times the maximum safe level for arsenic in drinking water. Ross was warned against even showering in her well water.
She alerted her neighbors, who soon tested their own wells, some of which were drilled decades before Ross’ well. At her brother’s and sister’s houses on the same road, the arsenic levels tested even higher.
“Nobody knew they had problems until I got mine tested,” Ross said. “I warned them that they better get theirs tested, and they laughed, ‘Nah, we’ve been drinking that for 20 years and it’s just fine.’ You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you have no idea it’s there.”
One in 10 wells in Maine has elevated levels of arsenic, according to state toxicologist Andrew Smith. About half of all households in the state use private well water, one of the highest rates per capita in the country, he said. But most haven’t been tested for arsenic.
Health officials hope to convince more Mainers to test their private wells. Earlier this month, the state released a slew of new data on private well water, including tens of thousands of test results down to the the town level. Along with arsenic, the data includes uranium, fluoride, manganese, nitrate and nitrite levels.
Posted to a searchable public health data portal, funded by a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant, the data also includes county-level estimates of how many residents have tested their private wells. Available for the first time in Maine, the information should help public health programs to target well water safety outreach to areas with a high risk of contamination and low testing levels, Smith said.
The information reflects only a portion of total well water tests, those conducted by the state-run Maine Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory. Results from commercial water testing companies are not available.
“If you have a well, you need to test your well,” Smith said. “No one but you is responsible for making sure that well is safe for your family to drink.”
Ross’ Washington County town of Danforth wasn’t even on health officials’ radar a few years ago, he said. Then three wells in close proximity turned up the highest levels of arsenic ever tested by the state’s lab, he said.
Today, Danforth’s among the 10 Maine towns with the highest percentage of wells with elevated arsenic. Manchester tops the list, with more than 62 percent of wells testing above the recommended guideline, followed by Blue Hill and Gorham.
Arsenic, a toxic chemical naturally found in soil and bedrock, can dissolve into drinking water through the ground or as runoff. It’s also a byproduct of some agricultural and industrial practices.
Consuming water with high levels of arsenic over time can lead to skin damage, circulation problems, stomach pain, nausea, and tingling in the hands and feet. Drinking it for many years may raise the risk of developing cancer, including skin, bladder, and lung cancers, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Arsenic exposure can also lead to low birth weight and affect brain development in young children.
Homeowners who discover elevated arsenic levels can either use bottled water for drinking and cooking or install a water filtration system.
Arsenic and other drinking water contaminants often cluster in certain areas depending on the underlying geology, Smith explained. But while elevated levels near a home serve as a red flag to test the well water, predicting contamination is mostly a guessing game, he said.
The only way to be sure? Test your well, he said.
“I’ve seen examples where all the houses on one side of the street are high, and all the houses on the other side of the street are low,” Smith said.
One out of 20 Maine wells has elevated levels of uranium, which can affect kidney function, he said. While uranium and arsenic are odorless and tasteless, manganese leads to an off taste or staining, so people tend to recognize contamination, he said.
In Danforth, Ross said it remains unclear whether any of her neighbors suffered ill health effects from their contaminated drinking water. One developed a persistent full-body rash that could be related to the arsenic, and some pets in the area got sick and died young, she said.
Ross and her relatives on Kinney Lane switched to town water.