Students to test for arsenic as part of public health effort

John McKechnie, a science teacher at Ellsworth High School and a Sedgwick homeowner who has dealt with arsenic problems, is part of a program that will see students distributing well water tests around Hancock County. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY CHARLES EICHACKER
John McKechnie, a science teacher at Ellsworth High School and a Sedgwick homeowner who has dealt with arsenic problems, is part of a program that will see students distributing well water tests around Hancock County. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY CHARLES EICHACKER

ELLSWORTH — It’s not hard, exactly, to test your well water for arsenic. But it’s also not the type of thing many people think to do, even if they know their water may be affected.

Consider Joseph Larson, who purchased a home in Blue Hill 14 years ago. At the time, Larson recently recalled, a test showed high levels of arsenic in his well. The seller lowered the price by $700, and Larson bought the home.

But only this past summer did Larson again test his well water, when organizers from a group called the Environmental Health Strategy Center knocked on his door. They gave Larson a testing kit and helped him use it.

(Instructions for doing so are available at or by calling the state’s toll-free helpline at 866-292-3474.)

The results came back: the arsenic level was 23 micrograms per liter (ug/L). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises anyone with more than 10 ug/L of arsenic in their well water to avoid drinking it, so Larson has started buying bottled water and is thinking about ways to treat his well water.

“It was nice to have them here and running through it,” Larson said of the outreach campaign that resulted in his test. “I was probably going to be doing it, but it wasn’t high on the list of priorities.”

That’s farther than many Mainers have gotten in testing their well water for arsenic, chronic exposure to which has been associated with different types of cancer and, according to one test of kids in central Maine, reduced brain development.

More than 700,000 Mainers get their water from private wells, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC). But 10 percent of those wells have arsenic levels over the recommended 10 ug/L, Maine CDC estimates.

The element abounds in the state’s bedrock, so it can leach into the groundwater in areas such as the Blue Hill Peninsula. Yet limited testing data available at the state level hints at the rarity with which people actually think to check for arsenic.

Now, a group of public health experts, educators and students in Hancock County is launching an effort that would be similar to the campaign carried out in Blue Hill last summer.

In that case, the Environmental Health Strategy Center was piloting a program for spreading awareness about water testing. It distributed 10 kits, at least two of which were used, said campaign manager Emma Halas-O’Connor.

In general, the low rate of return on free testing kits hasn’t impressed officials from the state health department, who this year decided not to reapply for a federal grant that would fund arsenic testing. They argued it was a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Groups such as Healthy Acadia (whose efforts were funded with those federal funds) and the Environmental Health Strategy Center opposed the department’s move, but a local businessman said he understands where the state was coming from.

Michael Gelberg is president of Air & Water Quality, a water treatment company with a branch in Ellsworth. Acknowledging that his bottom line is dependent on people testing their water, Gelberg said he’s mailed out free testing kits as part of a marketing campaign, but only seen about 5 percent of them put to use.

“It’s not easy to get people to test even if it’s subsidized or free,” Gelberg said. “People are averse to testing. They figure if they find out now, there’s going to be an economic impact.”

Real estate transactions are often the only time homeowners test their water, Gelberg added.

Enter the group from Hancock County, which includes Jane Disney, a senior scientist at MDI Biological Laboratory. Also involved are Healthy Acadia, Washington Hancock Community Agency (WHCA) and Dartmouth College.

Focusing on schools in Surry, Trenton, Blue Hill and Ellsworth, as well as in New Hampshire, the program will see students testing the well water in their homes. Researchers at Dartmouth will carry out the testing.

John McKechnie is a participating science teacher at Ellsworth High School. As a Sedgwick homeowner, McKechnie said he’s also dealt with arsenic in his own groundwater supply and sympathizes with residents who may be reluctant to get a test or install a $1,500 water treatment system.

MDI BioLab held a conference about arsenic in 2014. The local collaboration was in part born of that event’s findings, Disney said.

As students collect data, she said, the group will create a website that can further educate residents about arsenic and serve as a model for others around the country.

CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the type of research students at Hancock County schools will be doing as part of the EPA-funded, environmental health program. They’ll only be testing well water in their own homes.



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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