When she was 24, Ellsworth resident Kelsey George experienced mysterious health issues that kept getting worse and worse. Kelsey went to see her doctor, but it took more than a year to discover that her symptoms were likely the result of drinking arsenic-contaminated well water. By then, she was suffering from memory loss and neurological problems.

Kelsey is one of the 51 percent of Mainers who drink from private wells. Arsenic levels in one out of six of these wells exceed the current federal safety standard. Yet the responsibility of testing water quality in private wells falls on the owner – and those tests are not cheap. As a result, many private wells are never checked, and over 100,000 Maine children and adults are at risk of drinking arsenic-contaminated water.

Of Mainers affected by arsenic in their water, it’s estimated that 15.6 percent are low-income or unemployed individuals and 26 percent are over 60 years of age, according to a study and calculations conducted by the Economic Democracy Advocates. Something needs to change.

Arsenic in water is no small matter. Like lead, arsenic is a heavy metal. With their rapidly developing bodies and brains, infants and children are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of prolonged arsenic exposure – and those impacts last a lifetime. A 2014 study of Maine children correlated higher levels of arsenic in drinking water with lower IQ scores.

Arsenic is also a known carcinogen, with prolonged exposure linked to lung, skin and especially bladder cancers. The rate of bladder cancer in Maine is 20 percent higher than it is in the rest of the country.

Arsenic is odorless and tasteless, making it impossible to detect without testing. So how do we start to fix this problem? We make arsenic testing affordable and accessible.


Right now, the Legislature is considering L.D. 1943, which has the support of a variety of advocacy groups, including the Environmental Health Strategy Center and Maine Equal Justice Partners. The bill is about both health and equity.

First, the measure would provide free well water testing for low-income residents and simplify the rules used to see who qualifies for free testing. Financial obstructions should not block families from protecting themselves against this common hazard.

Knowledge is power, and if families become aware of an issue, they can take steps to reduce their exposure. There are interventions available that range from simply using other water sources for drinking and cooking, to installing expensive home purification systems. With access to testing, families at risk can make choices that reduce that risk.

Second, L.D. 1943 would require the state to review the current science, and consider lowering the currently acceptable contaminant level for arsenic in water provided by municipal systems. Several other states, including neighboring New Hampshire, adopted stricter limits after studying the issue. Protection of public health should be the priority.

Arsenic poisoning like Kelsey George’s should not be happening in Maine. Low-income Mainers should not have to weigh their health against their finances. We need to take immediate action to make arsenic testing affordable for every person in our state.

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