AUGUSTA, Maine — The water that flows out of your faucet may taste good, smell good and look good — but there’s a chance it could make you sick.
That was the message from some scientists who shared their ongoing research last week at the Maine Sustainability & Water Conference, held each year by the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions. They don’t want to just frighten people, either. They want to encourage them to test their water for such invisible troublemakers as arsenic and lead, and then take steps to mitigate problems that may be found.
“The major problem is that Maine has a high reliance on wells, but very few people test their wells,” Anna Farrell of the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor said while presenting a poster at the conference. “And knowing what to do with that information once you get it is also not known.”
Arsenic is a toxic chemical naturally found in Maine’s soil and bedrock. It can dissolve into drinking water through the ground or as runoff, and thereby make an unwelcome appearance in the private wells that more than half of Mainers rely on for their drinking water, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. About 10 percent of Maine wells have an elevated level of arsenic, and drinking that water can lead to problems over time such as 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 also can lead to low birth weight and affect brain development in young children.
Because of that, and because of the lack of widespread arsenic testing, Farrell and other scientists from the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory have teamed up with colleagues from Dartmouth College, the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program in Hanover, New Hampshire, and the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions to build school and community collaborations to help confront the problem. Teachers and students in four Maine and three New Hampshire schools are participating in this three-year project, called “All About Arsenic,” and over its course will test 600 wells for levels of the toxic substance.
Students from the Blue Hill Consolidated School are among the study participants, and results from tests they conducted last year in their homes showed that the average level of arsenic found in Blue Hill well water is nearly 50 parts per billion (the current acceptable standard set by the EPA is 10 parts per billion).
“We recommend you get your water tested,” Farrell said.
The Maine CDC recommends that private well water is tested every three to five years for arsenic, radon, uranium, lead and fluoride. Tests, which are available at laboratories across the state, cost between $70 and $100. If elevated levels of arsenic are detected, use bottled water for drinking and cooking, or install a water filtration system. For more information, visit the website wellwater.maine.gov or call 866-292-3474.
Other presenters at the conference were interested in another lurking water menace: lead. Sarah MacLeod and Leia Berube, juniors at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish, got inspired in an environmental chemistry class to address a problem with the drinking water in Lewiston.
“We found that Lewiston-Auburn has some of the highest rates of childhood lead poisoning,” MacLeod, of Gorham, said.
Lead is a toxin that can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, hearing damage, language or speech delays and lower intelligence in children. Symptoms of lead poisoning in adults can include headache, abdominal pain, memory loss and kidney failure. Although the problem of lead in water made national headlines when the Flint, Michigan, water crisis came to light, it is still fairly unreported in Maine.
The Saint Joseph’s College students learned that it is common in “older” homes — even those built as recently as the 1980s — to find lead in brass fixtures, fittings or in solder used in copper plumbing. Before 1987, solder that contained lead was used to join copper pipes in houses and apartment buildings, according to the Maine CDC. And until 2014, plumbing could have up to 8 percent lead content.
The students will be giving water sample kits to Lewiston area residents in the first part of April, then will collect them and test them. If there are elevated levels of lead in the water, they will encourage people to invest in a water filtration system or to switch to bottled water.
“It’s largely an unknown issue,” MacLeod said. “Lead in paint is widely publicized, whereas lead in water is not. People don’t know that the water they’re drinking is potentially poisoning them.”
“It’s surprising that people don’t know more about this,” Berube, of Brewer, added.
The annual Maine Sustainability & Water Conference, which began in 1994, is a good place for scientists — both students and professionals — to network and share ideas and their research, according to organizers.
“The conference provides an extraordinary opportunity for people from across Maine to come together and learn from one another,” David Hart, director of the Mitchell Center, said. “By sharing success stories, preparing for new challenges and showcasing the work of students on their way to becoming future leaders, the conference helps to build a brighter economic and environmental future for Maine communities.”
BDN writer Jackie Farwell contributed to this report.