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Un-poisoning the wells
Fixing N.H.’s well water contamination problem rests in residents’ hands

07/03/14



 The long-term consequences of arsenic poisoning aren’t pretty. 

The odorless, colorless and tasteless contaminant, which creeps into private well water from bedrock, can cause bladder cancer, lung disease and cardiovascular disease, and a recent study linked it to children with lower IQs in Maine.
“It’s bad, basically,” said Michael Paul of the Center for Environmental Health and Science at Dartmouth University. “If you have it in your water, you don’t want to be drinking it.” 
Because New Hampshire is largely rural, building community water systems, which must follow federal safety standards, can be challenging. New Hampshire has one of the highest numbers of private wells per capita in the nation — as much as 49 percent of New Hampshire residents’ depend on well water, and the number is growing.
 From 90 to 95 percent of those wells go deep into the bedrock, while the remaining are shallower. All wells run the risk of bacterial contamination, but the water in deeper ones may have unhealthy levels of potentially harmful metals. According to a study released by the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Department of Interior in late May, a third of homeowners with deep wells are at risk of drinking water with arsenic, lead, manganese and/or uranium concentrations greater than human-health standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency for public water systems.  
“As more people are moving and building homes, more and more people are tapping into bedrock aquifer, and more and more are exposed to these contaminants,” said Sarah Flanagan, a hydrologist with U.S. Geological Survey in Pembroke. 
Each metal can pose serious long-term health risks, but experts say the problem can be solved by homeowners. 
High risk in New Hampshire
State authorities have been zeroing in on the potential problem for a couple years. From 2012 to 2013 U.S. Geological Survey researchers sampled water from 232 private bedrock wells and tested for levels of arsenic, uranium, manganese, iron and lead.
They found that three in 10 wells were contaminated with higher-than-safe levels of one, two, three or all of the metals. 
Based on the results, researchers estimated that 49,700 people in Hillsborough, Rockingham, and Strafford counties might use drinking water from bedrock wells with arsenic concentrations greater than the maximum contaminant level of 10 micrograms per liter. Thousands others might be drinking high concentrations of the other four metals tested. 
Experts say the potential health risks caused by the problematic figures can be avoided.
“The message we do want to get across is people do need to test their private well. They usually only test for a few constituents like nitrate and bacteria,” said Flanagan.
But getting that message across may be difficult, he said. Even finding people to participate in the study was a challenge.
To find their test base researchers randomly selected homeowners with wells from a database of wells that had been drilled since 2004. When people agreed to participate, Flanagan and her team sent them bottles to fill with water and send back But only one homeowner in every three asked agreed to participate. 
“We think there is a psychological component, but [we’re] not really aware why they say no,” Flanagan said. “We can only speculate, but those who did say yes were very grateful to have this kind of work done.”
Researchers are hoping to gather more information about just what effects contaminated well water is having on New Hampshire residents, but there’s already been some evidence. 
Encouraging testing and treating
Another grant, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, has allowed the state’s Department of Safety to begin studying residents’ well water maintenance behaviors. They are researching how many residents are testing their well water and then treating it if results show high doses of  arsenic and other harmful metals. 
The research started before the U.S. Geological Survey results were announced — and Flanagan’s findings show a higher prevalence than the DES thought based on previous studies. 
“We had numbers of one-in-five [contaminated wells] from a study almost 10 years ago, so we didn’t have this info before,” said Paul, who is the project coordinator for the DES study. “So yeah, it’s worse than we originally thought.”
DES hired researchers from Dartmouth to execute a study that should give officials a better understanding  of the factors affecting people’s decisions, as well as how to fill in the gaps in public awareness and encourage action amongst residents using private wells. They also want to know if the fliers sent out by DES are effective. 
It’s the first study of its kind in the state. Researchers sent surveys to randomly selected homeowners with private wells and put the survey online. Most of the nearly 6,000 surveys went to homeowners in southern New Hampshire simply because more people live in that region, so there are more private wells. They are also surveying people who bring water to be tested this summer at the state laboratory to ask what prompted them to take the tests. Dartmouth researchers will be receiving surveys until the end of July and presenting a report in September. 
Results aren’t in yet, but researchers have a couple hunches. They suspect testing rates to be fairly low, and treatment rates even lower. Maybe people aren’t testing their well water because they simply aren’t aware that they are responsible for doing so, or they are testing when they are buying new homes but don’t realize the water can change over time and should be checked every three to five years. 
People also might not know what metals to test for, or not want to spend the money. 
“People don’t know what to test for and it can be expensive,” Paul said. “If you test for just arsenic it’s only like $15, but the standard analysis that the state recommends every three to five years, that’s about $85.”
What to do once test results come back positive also tends to baffle people. 
“There is the issue of people interpreting test results wrong, so they may ignore them,” Paul said. “Or if they realize they need to get something taken care of, they have to get a system to fix it, and, again, that can be expensive.” 
DES isn’t waiting for the survey results to make testing easier for homeowners. The CDC grant is also paying for the development of an online tool that will allow people to plug test results in and get specific information about what they should do next. 
 
No legal requirements 
In New Hampshire, as in most states, there are no legal testing requirements for homeowners at the state or the federal level like there are for community water systems. Private property protection has always won out, with legislation struck down twice in the past five years that would have addressed well testing requirements and disclosure of contaminants to homebuyers. 
The New Hampshire Association of Realtors has worked with the Department of Safety in the past to educate homeowners about the risks of metals in well water. 
“There was a strong resistance from real estate lobbyists,”  Paul said. “... Fewer houses might sell, or the sellers would have to spend money.” 
New Hampshire Association of Realtors President Alan Destefano said he wouldn’t support mandated well testing because it infringes on private property rights, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t encourage testing. Whenever agents in his office are selling a home with a private well, they first assess whether it is dug or drilled. 
“Each [type] has an inherent thing that has to be looked at,” Destefano said. “When working with a seller, we ask them, is there any problem with the well or have they tested it recently? If they haven’t had that done, on a dug well I will tell the seller to shock the well immediately. That’s recommended for every year anyways.”
According to Paul Susca, who manages the survey project for the DES, realtors and builders want to know how big a health issue high levels of metal pose for New Hampshire homeowners, “and so we’re trying to put some numbers on that,” he said. 
 
As seen in the July 3, 2014 issue of the Hippo.





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