September 6, 2011

Private well? Experts urge testing for toxics

AUGUSTA -- Nearly half of all Mainers get their drinking water from private wells -- the highest proportion in the country.

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Charles Culbertson, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, poses in Litchfield with some equipment that he uses to test well water.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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But only 40 percent of Maine's private wells have been tested for arsenic, in part because neither federal, state nor county authorities require it.

Meanwhile, scientists mapping arsenic levels in Maine say the toxin is showing up in more locations than previously suspected, with levels in some wells exceeding the federal safety standard by 10 times -- or more.

All of that points out a singular fact: Mainers are uniquely vulnerable to toxins in their drinking water and must take action to protect their families.

Martha Nielsen, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist who co-authored a landmark 2010 study on arsenic in central Maine, said heat maps showing the locations of wells with high levels of arsenic can be used as a guide. But with so many differences in concentrations from well to well, she said, households need to be diligent and test their own wells.

"This study shows the difficulty of predicting arsenic concentrations at the local level and should signal to everyone with a private well that the only way to know about arsenic concentrations in their well is to have their water tested," Nielsen said.

Andy Smith, state toxicologist, said that while Maine has the highest proportion of its population on private well water, educational programs are working to raise awareness.

In 2004, only about 26 percent of Maine households reported knowing whether they had tested their wells for arsenic. That number increased to more than 40 percent in 2009 after the state amped up its efforts.

The Maine Center for Disease Control has distributed posters and brochures to town offices in municipalities with high proportions of residents on private wells. The posters offer information about the presence of wells with arsenic.

But while public agencies have the legal duty, infrastructure, investment, resources and tax revenue to protect users of public water, Maine has debated but failed to establish a dedicated well water program for private users, even though nearly one in two Mainers rely on wells for drinking water.

"It's viewed as an individual's responsibility," Smith said. "In the real world, how do we get more people to test?"

It's a hard sell.

Testing, testing

Mike Gelberg, owner of Air & Water Quality Inc. -- a Freeport-based company that installs filtration systems -- said his technicians encourage customers to test their water supplies on a regular basis.

"It takes two seconds," Gelberg said, "but they won't do it."

Sometimes that goes even for people who know they have high levels of toxins.

"They'll put in a system and get the test results back right away," Gelberg said. "They're not going to be instantly sick from this -- it's not an immediate disease that happens -- so most people will never test again.

"We see this all the time."

Testing is fairly easy and, at $25 per test, fairly inexpensive; but reading the results may be a little more difficult, Smith said.

A laboratory will report most results in measurement units such as mg/L, milligrams per liter; or ug/L, micrograms per liter.

When homeowners compare their results with the safe limits, they should make sure those letters match. If they don't, or if a homeowner has other questions, it's time to call the Maine Center for Disease Control at 866-292-3474.

The Department of Health and Human Services Maine Health and Environmental Testing Lab also provides water testing guides and test application forms at

And the Maine Drinking Water Program provides information about arsenic at

"We have an outreach program to promote well water testing, and we answer calls via a toll-free line daily from individuals with wells containing elevated levels of arsenic or other contaminants," Smith said. "Maine Housing has some limited funding to assist with installing of water treatment systems for individuals of limited income through their FixMe program."

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