MDI Biological Laboratory

New Allies Help MDI Bio Lab’s Research on Aging and Environmental Risks

  • February 17, 2023

The University of New England, Maine Seacoast Mission, Maine Senior College Network and Maine AARP are joining forces with the MDI Biological Laboratory’s “All About Arsenic+” program.

Since the fall, Jane Disney, Ph.D., staff and interns in the Community Environmental Health Laboratory have been working hard to develop new connections in an ambitious citizen science program that’s now called “All About Arsenic+.

The multi-pronged effort includes “Arsenic and Aging”, which is raising awareness about potentially harmful levels of naturally occurring metals in residential wells, and spurring action to reduce older adults’ exposure to drinking water contaminants.

The initiative started five years ago with support from a National Institutes of Health grant to promote STEM education and scientific literacy. Students and teachers across Maine and New Hampshire collected well water samples for analysis and created valuable new data sets, while educating themselves and residents about ways to safeguard drinking water supplies.

Arsenic exposure can contribute to heart disease, diabetes and cancer of the bladder, lung, liver, prostate, and skin. In a significant number of well water samples, the MDI Bio Lab program uncovered elevated arsenic levels that residents were unaware of, leading many to switch to bottled water or install filtration equipment. Twelve percent of Maine samples analyzed for arsenic exceeded federally recommended levels.

“We’re using that experience as a model for reaching other groups, such as older Mainers, who may not be aware of the health impacts of contaminated drinking water,” Disney says. “The information we gain may change our thinking about diseases associated with aging and inform public policy to help protect older adults from health risks associated with contaminated well water.”

As detailed in an earlier post, UNE’s Center for Excellence in Aging and Health is joining the MDI Bio Lab to lead a collaborative survey seeking older adults’ opinions and assumptions about the quality of their drinking water in Maine and elsewhere.

That program is already tapped into UNE’s network of “Legacy Scholars” — older citizen scientists who assist university research on healthful aging. Now come three new allies with unique access to cohorts whose participation can further the goals of education, research and action on environmental toxins.

Maine Seacoast Mission and the Island Services program strive to help islanders thrive in place,” says Douglas Cornman, a mental health professional who is the Mission’s Director of Island Services.

Traveling on a 74-foot vessel called the Sunbeam, Cornman visits at least twice a month with year-round and seasonal residents of Maine’s unbridged outer islands, from the Cranberry Isles to Frenchboro and Matinicus. The boat provides a gathering place for socializing, health education and a telehealth facility to help residents stay in touch with mainland medical services.

During some home visits on these remote outposts Cornman has seen firsthand that arsenic can be a real problem, with residents putting in elaborate filtration systems to eliminate the unwanted metal. 

“Discovering that the Bio Lab is doing work in this targeted area while knowing that there are islanders who are dealing with arsenic in their water and who could get help is fantastic,” Cornman says. “It makes perfect sense to try to bring this work to islanders who can benefit.”

Working with the Community Environmental Health Laboratory, the Mission will communicate by email with islanders, send out confidential surveys, and make direct presentations during island visits. A voluntary water sampling program will be instituted, and information provided about accessing help to mitigate contamination.

Planning is underway for similar collaborative work with another highly-engaged group of older Mainers: the Maine Senior College Network, which includes 17 programs across the state where volunteer teachers provide low-fee educational opportunities for older learners.

“What Jane is doing definitely affects our members,” says Anne Cardale, the network’s Program Director. Administered by the University of Southern Maine, the network includes 6,000 members.

“They love information about Maine and its environment, and about healthy aging,” Cardale says. “Our main mission is ‘learning for fun’ and one of the things the membership tells us is they want more science! ‘Arsenic and Aging’ wraps citizen science in an education envelope.”

Disney and network leaders have already piloted the surveys, begun initial water sample collection and are developing more outreach materials and curricula to support the program’s goals.

And the Maine AARP will add a significant boost to the number of citizens “Arsenic and Aging” can bring into the survey effort, sponsoring outreach to their extensive membership of more than 200,000 Maine residents this spring.

Disney says engaging the widest-possible set of allies is essential to the program’s success. “I think this will be a great test case of how you could mobilize these multiple groups that serve older Mainers on any issue,” she says. “That’s why I want to document our process as we go. Because if we could move Mainers on this one, what else could we move them on?”

“All About Arsenic” was established with funding from an NIH  Science Education Partnership Award.