For centuries, murderers have turned to arsenic as an ideal poison to claim their victims because it doesn’t have any color, odor or taste to alert the unwary when it’s mixed in with food and drink.

So it’s no surprise that arsenic in drinking water is far from ideal.

Map showing the results of arsenic testing of private wells in Maine, with the darker colors showing areas most prone to excessive levels. Maine State Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory

Yet testing shows that about 15% of Maine wells have water with excessive levels of arsenic – and, since it’s possible any arsenic may pose a threat, the number is likely even higher.

“Arsenic is the sleeping giant that must be addressed, a Washington County teacher, Jim Lemke, told state leaders recently.

Legislators are considering a bill in Augusta that would help low-income Mainers get wells tested for the substance and require the state to consider lowering the currently acceptable contaminant level for arsenic in water provided by municipal systems.

State Rep. Lori Gramlich, a Democrat from Old Orchard Beach who sponsored the measure, said more than half of Maine’s 1.3 million residents drink water from private wells – putting more than 100,000 of them at risk of getting too much naturally occurring arsenic.

Auburn and Lewiston are among the towns with the highest levels of arsenic in drinking water from wells, state records show.

Based on testing from more than 51,000 private wells in Maine tracked by the state, almost 28% of Auburn’s wells had excess arsenic while Lewiston stood just over 15%.

Most people in both towns use municipal water, though, which is safe.

The Maine Public Health Association said having clean drinking water “is fundamental for good health.”

It said water contaminated with arsenic “has been associated with a host of poor health effects,” including increased cardiac disease, depression and “lower verbal IQ and poorer long-term memory” among exposed children.

Chart displays test average test results of water from private wells in each Maine county. Tests were done for a number of potentially hazardous items, including arsenic. State of Maine Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory

One of the problems, officials said, is that many private wells in the state are never tested. One expert said more than half the wells in Washington County, for instance, have never been tested.

Gramlich’s bill offers a mechanism to increase the testing for low-income Mainers by following a successful method to do more checking for radon exposure.

“No family should be exposed to elevated levels of arsenic simply because they cannot afford to test their well water,” she told colleagues.

Caroline Wren, a senior environmental policy major at Colby College in Waterville, told the Legislature she spent five months talking with hundreds of Maine residents about their use of well water as part of her honor thesis.

Many of them, she said, “do not have access to clean drinking water in their homes or have never tested their water.”

If they haven’t tested their water, they can’t know whether it contains dangerous levels of arsenic, Wren said. Since many are struggling, they are unlikely to shell out $100 or more for a test.

The state Department of Health and Human Services offers free test kits for low-income families, but to get one, they must have evidence from a doctor or geologist. Wren said people shouldn’t have to know a geologist or have health issues before having access to tests.

Sydney Sewall, a pediatrician from Hallowell, told legislators last month that Gramlich’s bill “doesn’t ask for a lot” in seeking more testing and higher standards.

If people know they have an arsenic problem, he said, “they can take steps to reduce their exposure,” from finding other water sources for drinking and cooking to installing home purification systems.

“With access to testing, families at risk can make choices that reduce that risk,” Sewall said, adding that income shouldn’t be a barrier to ensuring health.

Sarah Hall, a geology professor at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, said she and her students have tested more than 150 private wells since 2016 and found elevated arsenic levels in many of them.

“Our testing inspired some local residents to install treatment systems or switch drinking water sources,” she told the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

State Geologist Robert Marvinney said in a 2016 report that arsenic concentrations are found throughout Maine and are “not predictable from place to place.”

Generally, he said higher concentrations tend to be found in groundwater from areas of fractured bedrock because water is sometimes in contact with the rocks for years as it moves through the network of fissures. The long contact time allows the release of more arsenic, he said.

In the report, Marvinney said arsenic typically shows up in only a few parts per million in rocks and minerals, but in some scattered spots, it can be much higher. He mentioned some areas in Central Maine where it reached more than 500 parts per million, a much higher number.

The law allows up to 10 parts per billion of arsenic, but experts have questioned whether it should be half that, or even less. New Hampshire is among the states that have dropped the threshold to 5 parts per billion.

Gramlich’s bill requires the state to consider making the change.

“Should the level be lowered, it will be the legal limit for public water systems, but also be the threshold for when residential well owners are advised to take action, and hopefully provided with access to assistance in obtaining filters,” said Sarah Woodbury, state advocacy director for the Environmental Health Strategy Center.

The Maine Water Utilities Association said lowering the acceptable arsenic level “will require some water utilities to install additional water treatment” and warned that “the installation of arsenic treatment can be very expensive.”

Those backing the measure said combating arsenic can improve the lives and prospects of many Mainers.

Ellsworth resident Kelsey George told legislators he and a partner got a lease in Franklin a decade ago that relied on well water.

At the time, he said, he was a healthy 24-year-old working full-time but after a couple of years there he had developed “chronic sore throats, respiratory problems, cardiovascular stress, headaches, nausea, digestive issues” and more, losing more than 20 pounds and experiencing short-term memory loss.

On a hunch, they got the water tested. It turned out, he said, to have twice the legal limit for arsenic.

George moved years ago, but still has what he calls “a painful chronic neurological movement disorder in which your neck muscles contract or spasm involuntarily, causing your head to twist or turn to one side” that he attributes to arsenic poisoning.

“Nobody deserves to go through what l’ve been through,” George said. “That’s why everybody should have access to testing, even if they can’t afford it.”


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