Because of the health risks associated with exposure to arsenic — increased cancer risks and lower IQs in children — Maine aims to have 65 percent of the state’s drinking water wells tested for the chemical element by 2020.
New data released in October by the Environmental Health Strategies Center show that only 48 percent of private wells were tested for arsenic in 2014, so the state has a lot of work to do.
Legislation, which a bipartisan group of lawmakers say they will introduce next year, can help. The bill, which has yet to be submitted, would boost the Maine Center for Disease Control’s public education efforts, according to Rep. Karen Vachon, R-Scarborough, who intends to be its lead sponsor.
Emphasizing public education is a good start. In a previous effort to reduce arsenic exposure from drinking water, the state sent test kits to more than 200 households. Only 20 percent were returned for testing.
This highlights the need for better understanding of the dangers of chronic arsenic exposure in private water wells and the need for testing.
An “ arsenic belt” runs through Maine to northern Massachusetts because of the prevalence of granite that many drill through in order to set up their wells. High levels of arsenic, which occurs naturally in rock formations and is also a byproduct of burning coal, have been found in western Maine, Kennebec County and along the coast in Hancock and Washington counties.
Arsenic is tasteless and has no odor, so the only way to find out if it occurs in drinking water is to test for it. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services recommends testing every three to five years for arsenic and other contaminants, including lead and uranium. These tests, which are available at laboratories across the state, cost between $70 and $100. If high arsenic levels are detected, filters or a water treatment system are needed.
Last year, lawmakers passed a bill aimed at increasing the number of wells tested by offering financial assistance to low-income residents to test their wells and, if necessary, to help pay for remediation to lower arsenic levels in their drinking water. Money to fund the program was to come from a surcharge on water tests.
Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the legislation, and the House failed to override his veto. In his veto letter, the governor noted that well testing has increased from a quarter of private drinking water wells in 2003 to 45 percent in 2012. This is a positive trend, but it must continue in order to reduce the numbers of wells that contain arsenic to reduce health risks.
The LePage administration also said the legislation was unnecessary because the state had a federal grant to help pay for well water testing. But after LePage’s veto, lawmakers learned the state had not applied to renew the $300,000 grant. The money was targeted for Aroostook, Hancock, Franklin and Washington counties, the areas with the highest arsenic levels in Maine.
Rather than simply replaying this scenario, the new bill should emphasize homeowner and tenant education before allocating state funds to water testing kits.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the number of drinking water test kits that were returned.