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High levels of arsenic found in 6% of Bar Harbor wells

In a state known for its pristine wilderness and natural resources, it would follow that all its residents have access to clean drinking water, but high levels of toxic chemicals are present in many Maine wells.

The MDI Biological Laboratory has been working with local schools to test arsenic levels in well water since 2018, but Bar Harbor Public Health Officer Mike Gurtler recently spearheaded a collaboration to expand that reach in town.

In total, 147 water samples have been collected, and 6 percent exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level for arsenic of 10 parts per billion (ppb).

Dr. Jane Disney, associate professor of environmental health at MDI Bio Lab who leads the arsenic program, said chronic long-term exposure to even low levels of arsenic can lead to higher rates of cancers, kidney and cardiovascular problems, and affect childhood development. A 2014 study from Environmental Health discovered a link between arsenic exposure and lower IQ in Maine schoolchildren.

“Arsenic has this lifetime impact that sometimes you don’t see the outcome for 40 years and so I think that’s why we don’t have the same eye on it that we do on lead, for example,” Disney said.

Some states like New Hampshire and New Jersey have passed more stringent standards that only allow arsenic levels of 5 ppb. The most recent round of testing found that 13 percent of town samples exceeded these most conservative regulations. Defend Our Health, a Portland based nonprofit advocating for clean water, air and products, is pushing to tighten state-wide policies around arsenic and other “forever chemicals.”

“Maine’s current standard relies on decades-old science, and newer research shows that it should be much lower to protect our health,” reads the Defend Our Health website. “The standard for arsenic should be 1,000 times stronger to truly protect people from cancer and children from harm to brain development.”

Wells in Maine, especially along the coastline, are usually drilled into hard, crystalline bedrock, which increases the likelihood of high arsenic levels. According to the Maine Center for Disease Control, one in 10 wells in the state has high levels of arsenic and other toxic contaminants.

Unlike public water supplies that are state regulated and tested, those who rely on private wells, including nearly half of Bar Harbor residents, are solely responsible to test and treat the water. Maine has among the highest per capita reliance on private wells for drinking water in the U.S. at 56 percent.

Still, testing rates remain low. Disney said arsenic and other contaminants are colorless, odorless and tasteless, so they often go undetected until it’s too late.

“Anyone on a public water system is guaranteed the right to safe water, and anyone who’s not is on their own,” she said.

For those who do have poor quality drinking water, Disney said it’s imperative to switch to bottled water, or invest in a pitcher- or under-sink filtration system. She recommended a ZeroWater filter, which has been found to remove all traces of arsenic.

MDI Bio Lab has been making strides to create a national model that engages and educates schools about the public health risks of exposure to arsenic and other toxic contaminants in drinking water. Their five-year project, “All About Arsenic,” is funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and involves teachers and students from schools in Maine and New Hampshire collecting well water for arsenic testing.

Gurtler approached Disney with the idea to expand testing beyond the school population and encourage more residents to monitor their wells. After 85 wells were tested in 2021, College of the Atlantic students joined Conners Emerson students in collecting samples, and Defend Our Health provided free test kits during the second round late last year.

Student-collected samples were analyzed at the Trace Element Analysis Core at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and town-collected samples were analyzed by a private company with support from Defend our Health. In all, 62 samples were collected in 2022.

Gurtler said the town will continue arsenic testing events and he hopes to expand efforts to include more time-sensitive data collection, like scanning for E. coli.

Victoria DeCoster

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