Not enough Maine households are testing for arsenic, according to the Environmental Health Strategy Center.
The most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control finds that less than half of the state’s households that rely on well water test for arsenic. Health advocates say the state needs to do more to educate private well owners and achieve a statewide goal of 65 percent testing by 2020.
When Mt. Vernon resident Wendy Brennan got her well water tested for arsenic a few years ago as part of a study, she was shocked at the results. She and her three children had been drinking water with 10 times the acceptable level.
“We found out we had been drinking this contaminated water for years. We had lived on the lot at that point since 2001, so we’d been there about eight years,” she said.
Brennan didn’t know she should have tested for arsenic, and Emma Halas O’Connor of the Environmental Health Strategy Center said that’s true for too many Mainers.
More than half of the state relies on private well water, and about 10 percent of those wells are contaminated. But O’Connor said the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reveals testing levels are stagnant.
“Between 2012 and 2014, there was no substantial increase in the number of Mainers who have tested their well water for arsenic,” she said.
According to the U.S. CDC, in 2012, 45 percent of Maine households tested for arsenic. By 2014, that number inched up to just under 48 percent. Numbers have been increasing by a few percentage points since 2009.
“All of these people using well water are not protected by any government oversight checking the safety of their water, so it’s really incumbent upon them, the users of the well, to test their water and make sure it’s not contaminated with any dangerous chemicals,” O’Connor said.
Arsenic is tasteless, colorless and odorless. Long-term exposure is associated with lower IQ scores, skin disorders and an increased risk for certain cancers.
O’Connor said the state needs to do more outreach to educate Mainers about the importance of testing. But last year, the Department of Health and Human Services didn’t reapply for a federal grant that funds education efforts.
Gov. Paul LePage also vetoed a bill last year that sought to increase testing and awareness for arsenic. But some lawmakers said they will make another attempt next year.
“I am in favor of it. I plan to be some kind of co-sponsor of legislation,” said Republican state Rep. Gary Hilliard of Belgrade.
Hilliard said he thinks the only way to get more people to test for arsenic is for the state to spread the word.
A spokeswoman from the Department of Health and Human Services said it plans to launch a targeted mail campaign to households with children. In addition, Samantha Edwards said the department is updating its website and brochures, and also exploring the use of social media, all to ensure Maine meets its statewide testing goal of 65 percent by 2020.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.