Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Denis Thoet and his partner, Michele Roy, own and
A few days later, Cooper reported in a front-page story that 11 percent of Maine homes have high levels of arsenic in their well water, and 20 percent have elevated levels of radon, a gas given off from granite when uranium is present.
She also reported that a 1990s study in Maine showed that Swiss chard and beets (we grow both at our farm) grown in a greenhouse absorbed detectable levels of arsenic when irrigated with water that contained 5,000 parts per billion of arsenic. Another study showed that uranium could leach into lettuce, radishes, tomatoes and squash at high levels of concentration. These are common crops at our farm.
Cooper reported that "in elevated levels, arsenic has been linked to certain types of cancers, childhood learning disabilities, heart disease and low birth rates. Uranium can affect the kidneys, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."
More typically, vegetables are contaminated by bacteria such as E. coli or salmonella, which can leach from fresh animal manure into irrigation water or wash water.
To prevent this kind of contamination, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association requires that organic farmers locate their manure piles so they cannot leach into the garden, and that the manure be at least 120 days old before applying in the garden.
We use lots of manure in our garden. Some comes from our goats, sheep and small flock of chickens; the rest comes from the dairy farm down the road. We usually wait six months to a year before applying manure anywhere in the garden.
Since Cooper asked the question and I wanted to know the answer, I took a well-water sample to the Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory in Augusta, paid the $40 fee and awaited the results. While there I chatted with a man from Wayne who said his well water was so high in uranium that it was undrinkable. They used bottled water for drinking.
"Have you thought of mining your place for uranium? Or maybe you could sell heavy water to Iran?" I asked. He was not amused.
About a week later the result came back: Arsenic: less than five micrograms per liter, and the same for uranium. The EPA's maximum contaminant level is 10 micrograms per liter. (Not sure how to translate micrograms per liter into parts per billion, however.)
"Your water is considered satisfactory for all tests analyzed and listed above," the report said.
And if the tests had gone badly? That would mean that the water we drink every day would have been dangerous to us, and we would have to find another source.
Poland Spring is not an option. (Actually, Poland Spring's published mineral analysis does not include arsenic or uranium test results in its listing.)
And we would have had to change our irrigation method from drip tape coming from the house well and instead take advantage of rainwater collected from thousands of square feet of roof space on our main house and three outbuildings. Gutters would channel water into rain barrels and all the rain water would gravity feed into the gardens.
Sounds simple, except for one small problem: when the rains stop (typically July-September, although no pattern is typical anymore), rain water can't be collected. And that's when we need the irrigation! Adding large storage tanks would be a possible, if expensive, solution to the problem.
There is a broader problem with arsenic and uranium in Maine water. If we are going to be the "Saudi Arabia of water," we can't be shipping out contaminated water, wrapped in plastic or otherwise.
Denis Thoet and his partner, Michele Roy, own and manage Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner. www.longmeadowfarmmai ne.com.