Fewer than half of the residential drinking water wells in Maine are tested for the presence of arsenic. This puts the health of many Maine residents at risk.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has worked to tell people about the need for well testing, but its message is not being heeded. Arsenic is prevalent in parts of Maine and has been linked to increased cancer risks and lower IQ scores.
Data from the Environmental Health Strategies Center, released in November, show that only 48 percent of private wells were tested for arsenic in 2014. Maine has a public health goal of having 65 percent of wells tested by 2020. It isn’t likely to meet it.
Several bills lawmakers are considering this year aim to increase the number of wells that are tested. Maine DHHS 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.
LD 454, sponsored by Rep. Karen Vachon, R-Scarborough, would require DHHS to intensify its public education and outreach efforts. It would also require the Maine Well Driller’s Commission to develop educational materials to be given to homeowners when a residential private drinking water well is drilled or deepened to inform the owners of the importance of testing for arsenic and other contaminants.
It also requires that owners of rental residences that rely on wells for drinking water have that water tested every three to five years and disclose the test results to tenants within 10 days.
LD 1001, sponsored by Rep. Heidi Brooks, D-Lewiston, would require DHHS to pay for testing of private drinking water wells for low-income residents — those who earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais is the sponsor of LD 1263, which would set aside state money to help community agencies identify households most at risk for drinking water contamination and to use the Maine State Housing Authority’s home repair program — and $200,000 in state funds — to help income-eligible homeowners buy water treatment systems.
Other bills seek to expand water testing in schools. For example, another bill Brooks is sponsoring, LD 717, would require testing for lead and arsenic of all water supplies at schools and nursery schools. Current law only requires testing of water supplies that do not come from public water system. Last year, an analysis by the Associated Press found nine Maine schools with elevated lead levels in their drinking water. Four water fountains at two Bangor schools — Bangor High School and 14th Street School — were shut down last spring after they tested for high lead levels. The problem was caused by old plumbing in the schools, not the water supply.
A third bill from Brooks would expand this drinking water testing to all public buildings.
Work sessions on these bills are scheduled for Wednesday before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services and Labor Commerce, Research and Economic Development committees.
While all of these bills are well intentioned, legislators should be cautious about expanding the government’s role in water testing.
Certainly, government has a role in minimizing the risks, but well owners must also do their part. The message is simple: Arsenic and lead are dangerous to your health. If you have a private drinking water well, get it tested.