When Emily Roderick moved with her husband and two young kids into a Readfield home about 18 months ago, there was radon in the basement and bacteria in the well, but arsenic in the water wasn’t an issue.
Now, after a study released earlier this month showed a possible link between arsenic in private well water and lower intelligence levels in area schoolchildren, she said her water will be tested frequently, perhaps each year.
“Seeing the study, we are going to get our water tested regularly to make sure that it doesn’t become a problem,” Roderick said.
A Maine environmental interest group said the study on children exposed to arsenic in well water at home, conducted by scientists from Columbia University and the University of New Hampshire, demands a strong state response, and local legislators are concerned. However, state toxicologist Andrew Smith noted that arsenic’s link to lower IQ levels has been suggested before — the Columbia study followed similar research in Asia.
In an unrelated move, more testing could come to Kennebec County. A new Columbia project seeking federal funding would test 10,000 of the county’s 17,000 wells over the next six years, said Yan Zheng, a Columbia researcher.
The state recommends testing wells for arsenic and other contaminants every three to five years. The study, Smith said, gives those using wells an extra incentive to test their water regularly or limit exposure to well water by using more bottled water.
The five-year Columbia study, which looked at 272 students in grades 3 through 5 at schools in Readfield, Manchester, Monmouth, Wayne, Mount Vernon and Hallowell, found that exposure to even low levels of arsenic could be linked to lower intelligence levels — a difference of as much as five or six points on an IQ test.
STATE RESPONSE SOUGHT
The Maine study expanded on Columbia’s previous work in Bangladesh, where arsenic exposure is higher than Maine. Still, arsenic is naturally in much of the state’s bedrock, especially in parts of Kennebec County and other areas along the southern coast and Down East.
About 40 percent of Mainers use private water wells, according to Robert Marvinney, Maine’s state geologist. A quarter of those wells have arsenic concentrations over 10 parts per billion, according to 2006 data from the University of Maine. That ratio is the federal legal standard for public drinking water, but private well water isn’t subject to limits.
A 2011 Kennebec Journal series, using federal data, found that between 12,000 and 16,000 residents of Kennebec County are exposed to toxic arsenic levels. Arsenic has long been linked to cancers of the skin, liver, bladder and lungs. But the new study is the first linking arsenic exposure to lower IQ points in the United States.
Participants in the test are hard to locate, as researchers signed confidentiality agreements with them. But when the new study results were released, Wendy Brennan of Readfield wondered if her 14-year-old daughter’s difficulty in math could be linked to drinking the water.
The filtration system that the family installed cost $800 up front, and replacing the filter costs at least $100 every six months, or sooner if they drink more water.
“I worry when we can’t replace the filter as quickly as we should,” she said.
Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, a Bangor-based group that fights toxic chemicals, said the findings demand a three-pronged state response: Providing money for low-income Mainers to get wells tested, an aggressive outreach plan to raise awareness of the problem and mandating that homes’ private water be tested before the point of sale, and regularly at other homes.
“The stakes have been raised and it requires a legislative response,” Belliveau said.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services already provides many details on well testing on its website, including the locations of laboratories that sell home testing kits. Also, state surveys show that in 2004, 26 percent of Maine homeowners using wells knew their water had been tested for arsenic. By 2009, that number was up to nearly 42 percent after outreach efforts.
By 2012, preliminary data provided by Smith said it went up slightly to 45 percent. In Kennebec County, well owners were more diligent, at 60 percent.
NEW TESTING PROPOSED
Two new projects, including the Columbia project that also involves the Maine Geological Survey, could shed more light on the arsenic issue.
Smith said the state recently won a two-year, $300,000 federal grant that will spark pilot projects at three Healthy Maine Partnerships serving Franklin, Washington, Hancock and Aroostook counties. Those groups beat out another group that included Kennebec County to use the funding for outreach programs on arsenic testing and provide some test kits to people living in those areas.
Marvinney and Zheng, the Columbia researcher, said the testing in their project seeking funding would be done with field kits, meaning researchers could test water at a home and know results within minutes, allowing them to talk with homeowners about remediating any issues that showed up.
If the work is approved for funding, testing could begin in April 2015 and run through 2020. Zheng said “through change in the social norm of testing,” researchers hope to get more people on the track of regularly testing their water.
“We just want to keep raising that awareness,” Marvinney said.
Remediation of arsenic issues can be costly: Andrea Brann of Manchester treats all of her Kerns Hill Road home’s water with a system that she said cost $3,300 to install, with the company that installed it doing regular maintenance on it at cost.
But she said she supports Belliveau’s idea for the state to provide funding for low-income Mainers for testing. She said many people she has talked to can’t afford systems to treat their water.
“Some of them can’t even afford to have their water tested,” she said.
About a decade ago, Marc Loiselle of Readfield paid about $800 to install a filtration system under the kitchen sink in his Sturtevant Hill Road home. He knew there was arsenic in the water when he bought in 1995, but it was then at a level below the national limit for public water. He didn’t act to remove it until the government lowered the standard in 2002 from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion.
But if he had school-age children, Loiselle said he would have acted earlier — with or without the new research.
“It most certainly would have changed my outlook on it if I had children,” he said.
Last week, word was still spreading in the Augusta area about the survey. Superintendents in the districts said they were trying find out more about what the study means.
Initially, researchers reached out to kids with school approval and sent notes home to parents. They connected with researchers outside of school, so schools didn’t know which students were involved, according to Virgel Hammonds, superintendent of Regional School Unit 2, comprising Hallowell, Farmingdale, Richmond, Monmouth and Dresden.
Dawn Gallagher, school board chairwoman in RSU 2, welcomed the study and called the results concerning. But, she said “it’s hard to say what actions we could take” not knowing exactly where the affected families live, and she asked them to reach out to the district.
It’s also too early to tell if the mandatory provisions that Belliveau supports will come up in the Legislature, or if they could get much political traction.
A bill put forward in 2007 that would have mandated well testing before a home could be sold failed unanimously before a legislative committee with opposition from Smith and the Maine Association of Realtors. It was modeled on a 2002 New Jersey law that was the first of its kind in America.
In 2010, the Maine Realtors’ group told the Kennebec Journal that its members didn’t want to be in a position where they had to ensure testing was done, adding that agents already provide purchase-and-sale agreements with a box to check if a home buyer wants to test a well for arsenic.
Roger Lajeunesse, an Augusta-based agent with ERA Webb Associates, said if he were moving to a community particularly affected by arsenic, he would be deeply concerned as a parent of five. When he’s representing buyers, he said he always demands wells be tested. If arsenic is found, Lajeunesse said sellers sometimes will pay for remediation. Sometimes, potential buyers will simply look in another area.
A client of his, a nurse, did that recently, he said. In that way, contamination could affect property values.
Smith, the toxicologist, didn’t oppose the 2007 bill’s intent, but opposed it then because he said his office didn’t have the resources to undertake the efforts that would have been mandated by the bill. Still, he said there are so many homes with wells and so few transactions that mandated tests may not help much.
“If you made that a law, whether it would make a difference is unclear,” he said.
Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, said the new study “might change the conversation” on the issue in the Legislature, especially around the adequacy of the federal arsenic standard and the findings that show even small amounts may impair cognitive ability in kids.
“It raises questions about whether the state should be more aggressive than the federal government,” Treat said.
Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, said he was seeking more information about the study and wasn’t sure what the proper legal fix may be.
However, “if the findings are true — that children aren’t learning because of arsenic in water — that needs to be addressed and fixed,” he said.