BELGRADE LAKES — Colby College students held a Friday forum on arsenic in Maine wells amid legislative action that followed studies linking to lower IQ levels in area children.

Arsenic is a known carcinogen and can leech into groundwater, and it occurs naturally in Maine bedrock, particularly in central and Down East Maine. From 2005 to 2009, the state found that water from 29 percent of private wells tested in Kennebec County had higher concentrations of arsenic than the federal limit for public water, 10 parts per million.

The problem gained more attention in Maine after a study from Columbia University and the University of New Hampshire was released in 2014. For five years, researchers examined 272 students in grades 3 through 5 at schools in Manchester, Readfield, Monmouth, Wayne, Mount Vernon and Hallowell, finding that exposure to low levels of arsenic in unregulated well water could lower IQ levels by up to six points.

Advocates called for an aggressive response after the study. This session, the Maine Legislature is considering two bills that look to increase well testing, and the bills, sponsored by Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, and Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, are set to come up for public hearings later this month.

All of that action made it for a timely civic engagement project for students in a class taught by Gail Carlson, an environmental studies professor at the private Waterville college. That included the Friday forum at the Maine Lakes Resource Center in Belgrade Lakes.

“We decided to have it here and use Belgrade as a community that has private wells and focus here,” Carlson said.


Maps made by Samantha Lovell, a junior environmental policy student, starkly illustrated the issue: Manchester, where 62 percent of wells were higher than the public water limit, was red, signifying severity. Winthrop, Readfield, Monmouth and Richmond had levels above 40 percent, with some wells 40 times higher than the public water limit.

It was so high in some places, Lovell said, that “I thought I had joined the data wrong.”

Well testing has increased dramatically in recent years: In 2004, 26 percent of Maine homeowners using wells knew that they had been tested, and it went up to 45 percent by 2012, according to state data. But Saviello and Gattine aim to increase it: The Republican’s bill would force a new homebuyer to choose whether or not to opt out of well testing and the Democrat’s bill requires testing when new wells are drilled, while both would impose fees on certain equipment to fund remediation for low-income people.

Carlson said students are expected to testify at the hearing of at least one of the bills.

The forum drew Elizabeth and Chris Hart of Mount Vernon, who have tested their well three times in 20 years, and they said their water has tested at below the federal limit each time. Still, they’re concerned, and now that they’re building a new house, they said they’re finally seeking remediation systems after putting it off before.

“We’re just feeling like we haven’t gotten there yet,” Elizabeth Hart said. “We don’t have small children. I think if you had small children, it moves you along to do it sooner.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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