Kenneth Albertson, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, delivered good information about Maine’s public water supply in his recent column, “Maine is not Flint, Michigan” (March 28). But his assurances applied to only half the people in Maine.

The rest of us — half the residents of Maine — drink residential well water. That includes my 17-month-old grandson and other members of my extended family. For these families, exposure to arsenic from well water is as big and serious a threat as the recently discovered crisis in Flint.

Maine has the highest reliance in the nation on well water. While I agree with Albertson that Maine has excellent systems that keep our public water supplies safe, those who drink residential well water are left on their own to test and treat their water for common toxic contaminants, such as arsenic, which occur naturally in bedrock and soils.

And far too many people drinking well water don’t know they should get it tested. Even though I’ve lived for years in Monmouth, I was startled to learn recently that half of the wells tested in our town are contaminated with unsafe levels of arsenic.

As the volunteer president of the Monmouth Water Association in the 1990s, with young children drinking from our town water supply, I came to deeply appreciate the knowledgeable staff members at the Maine CDC’s Drinking Water Program and the many protections in place that keep public water safe.

It wasn’t until several years later, serving as the environmental public health coordinator at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, that I became aware of the sobering fact that many people in our state may be drinking unsafe water. It’s estimated today that only 45 percent of Maine residents with wells are testing their water, and that 1 in 8 residential wells is contaminated with levels of arsenic that would fail any public water test.

Maine does test and protect its public water from arsenic, in keeping with safety standards established by the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. But when residential well water contains arsenic or other contaminants above the act’s safety threshold, no law is broken, and no action is triggered.

That’s why, unlike Albertson, I see many parallels between the drinking water problems in Maine and Flint.

In both places, roughly 100,000 people are exposed to contaminated drinking water.

As in Flint, unsafe drinking water in Maine disproportionately impacts people who live below the poverty line, and have the least resources to address arsenic contamination, which often requires expensive remediation equipment or the regular purchase of gallons of bottled water.

There are similarities in the health impacts, too, especially on children. My own town of Monmouth was part of a Columbia University study demonstrating that school children with arsenic in their drinking water have IQ scores that are on average 5–6 points lower than that of their peers. Consider the heartbreaking impact this could have on Maine children’s future success.

And in both Maine and Flint, a public health crisis is the consequence of a government response that is too slow and too limited to address the problem.

It’s true that the Maine CDC has carried out good work to educate Maine people about the need to test their wells. Its Environmental Public Health program has excellent tracking data on the rates of well-water testing and percentages of contaminated wells, right down to the town level. The CDC also features quality information resources on its website for Maine residents.

But the Maine CDC can only do as much as resources allow, and officials at the Department of Health and Human Services are underinvesting in this work.

Clearly, it is not enough to address a major public health crisis by maintaining high quality information on a website. State leaders are doing important outreach and education work to prevent childhood lead poisoning, yet, last year, Maine Department of Health and Human Services denied the Maine CDC an opportunity to reapply for a federal grant that would have supplied resources for similar outreach efforts in arsenic hotspot communities. The same month, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed legislation that would have increased resources to improve well-water testing rates.

While the state may not have a legal imperative to protect people with residential wells, we do have a moral imperative. The costs of inaction are high when children suffer a loss of IQ points and we see increased rates of bladder and skin cancers. Public investments in education, outreach, and support for low-income water testing would be money well spent.

Until we see Maine’s public health agencies taking proactive action to prevent exposure to toxic chemicals like arsenic in residential well water, it is fair to say that the water crises in Maine and Flint share much in common.

Ginger Jordan Hillier is a Monmouth resident, former board president of the Monmouth Water Association, former environmental public health coordinator at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, and a mother and grandmother.

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