MDI Biological Laboratory

Funding Helps Expand Arsenic Awareness Program

  • May 13, 2022

Long-term exposure to arsenic can lead to a host of health issues, including heart disease; cancer of the bladder, lung, liver, prostate, and skin; diabetes, and more.

Groundwater contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic is one of the most pressing public health issues in Maine and New Hampshire. Since 2016, associate professor of environmental health, Jane Disney, Ph.D., has focused on understanding how much arsenic is in our environment by engaging students as citizen scientists in collecting well water for arsenic analysis. This work is funded through a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) project funded through the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences.  She has found that providing students with tools, skills and resources to make sense of data so that their results can inform actions at the local and state level, can lead to improved public health outcomes.

Now, with generous support from the Gloria MacKenzie Foundation, Disney is expanding her research from drinking water to include soil and crops. The project, called “Orchards, Gardens and Fields” will focus on the northern counties of Maine where there was historic use of arsenical pesticides in agricultural areas and where today, cultivation of hay, potatoes, and apples is still an important economic driver. The idea for launching “Orchards, Gardens, and Fields” came from student data emerging from the SEPA well water monitoring program. Bedrock geology explains arsenic contamination in deep drilled wells, which in many areas of Maine tap into metasedimentary rock formations that are rich in arsenic, but students discovered that arsenic is elevated even in some dug wells. This has raised the question of whether arsenic is getting into these shallow wells from surface contamination, such as runoff from agricultural areas with arsenic in the soil.

Disney hopes to better understand the cycle of arsenic on agricultural land and in home gardens, and its potential effects on human health, from exposure such as eating produce, touching soil, or breathing in soil dust. “While there are guidelines for how much environmental arsenic is “safe” to consume,” Disney explains, “There is no federal or state standard for how much arsenic is allowable in our produce. Understanding how arsenic moves through the growing cycle may help  to inform a standard, or help farmers make different crop choices.”

This spring, she and her team have been working with local high school teachers and students in Washington and Aroostook counties, as well as Healthy Acadia and the Central Aroostook Soil and Water Conservation District, to collect soil samples for analysis of arsenic. The resulting data sets will create a strong baseline of information for all stakeholders, and Disney plans to turn them into curriculum aids, to get more rural schools and students involved in citizen science. “There’s a raft of benefits from engaging young people in this research,” says Disney. “It gets them outside. The work creates community connection, and it has relevance for them – ultimately, they have data to support their position and can advocate for healthy environments.”