Arsenic: subtle but serious health risk





ELLSWORTH — The element arsenic is odorless, tasteless and colorless. Up until the Victorian Era, its presence was hard to verify in the human body. Those qualities once made it the chemical of choice for would-be murderers.

It no longer has such a criminal rap, but arsenic remains a health risk for many around the world, whether in groundwater, food or manufactured substances such as pesticides.

Chronic exposure to relatively low doses of arsenic has been associated with various cancers and, according to a recent study of children in central Maine, reduced brain development.

For Mainers, the threat is in our geology. Arsenic naturally occurs in large stretches of the state’s bedrock. That bedrock also happens to be the source of drinking water for at least half the state’s residents, meaning arsenic contaminates the water that flows through their sinks, showers and laundry machines.

Just as troublesome, many Mainers don’t test their water for arsenic or other problematic substances such as uranium and radon.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (Maine DHHS) has made efforts to spread awareness about groundwater arsenic rates, creating an online data portal and accepting federal funds to promote testing.

But the department didn’t reapply for those funds this year, citing the ability of private businesses to perform similar services and a poor return on the free test kits it had previously helped distribute.

Absent those funds, a group of local educators, students and public health organizations is pushing Hancock County residents to test their well water.

The group recently landed its own grant of $192,200 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to Jane Disney, a senior scientist at MDI Biological Laboratory who has been organizing the efforts with Healthy Acadia and other groups.

A sizable chunk of Maine towns with high arsenic rates are in Hancock County.

In seven towns — Blue Hill, Orland, Surry, Mariaville, Otis, Sedgwick, Trenton — more than 30 percent of the wells tested by the state have arsenic levels over the 10 ug/L threshold, according to the limited data released by Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC) in August.

John McKechnie, a Sedgwick homeowner and Ellsworth High School science teacher, can personally attest to the arsenic lurking under the Blue Hill Peninsula. When McKechnie built his home on coastal ledge 20 years ago, he had a well dug into the bedrock. A water test showed arsenic rates around 100 ug/L, he recalled — 10 times the recommended threshold.

Several options exist once a homeowner learns his groundwater contains high levels of arsenic (information about those options below). They include buying drinking water or installing treatment systems.

After learning his home had high arsenic levels, McKechnie had a second, shallower well dug that let him and his family, including two kids now in high school, shower and wash their clothes. They didn’t drink their tap water, instead filling water bottles at the home of McKechnie’s parents, who live two miles away.

Only this past summer did the finances work for McKechnie to install a $1,300 treatment system that eliminates arsenic, iron and other metals from his water.

McKechnie understands how other homeowners may hesitate to get their wells tested or make pricey upgrades.

“I’m struggling to live a middle class lifestyle — two parents working,” he said. “It was hard for us to set aside that $1,500. Even though it was on my priority list, it kind of sneaks out of your mind now and then, until you’re sick of the water and you don’t have it, but we were fortunate to come up with that money.”

“This is where it gets sensitive,” McKechnie added. “How do you address it when someone has a hard time coming up with that $1,500?”

That appears to be the dilemma: how do you get people struggling to pay their bills to test for something that’s almost impossible to detect, could lead to further bills and may not affect them for another 30 years, if at all?

Members of McKechnie’s family haven’t experienced any serious health effects from their groundwater. They didn’t drink the water until this past summer, McKechnie said, so for them the main irritants were running out of water and taking showers in the heavy, untreated water.

Dr. Robert Beekman, a pediatrician at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital, said it’s been many years since he’s seen a patient with acute arsenic poisoning. When he did, he said they usually were exposed to arsenic from pesticides or industrial work near their homes.

Far more common now, Beekman said, are patients who learn of high arsenic levels after their well water is tested — not from any symptoms. If a water test shows arsenic levels above the 10 ug/L threshold, Beekman advised consulting with Maine CDC officials about options.

With those levels, Beekman also cautioned homeowners against automatically thinking they need to “abandon a house” or buy “a whole-house treatment system that could just break the bank.” Often they can still safely shower and wash dishes, he said.

For some, getting that first test may be the challenge. Next week, The Ellsworth American will look at steps local health experts and students are taking to educate citizens about arsenic and promote well water testing.

For more information about arsenic and water testing, visit the Maine CDC website ( or call (866) 292-3474.

Charles Eichacker

Charles Eichacker

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Charles Eichacker covers the towns of Bucksport, Orland, Castine, Verona Island, Penobscot, Brooksville and Dedham. When not working on stories, he likes books, beer and the outdoors. [email protected]

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