MDI Biological Laboratory

MDI Bio Lab and Seacoast Mission Team Up to Combat Water Risks

  • October 20, 2023

Island Institute Fellow hired to raise awareness of well-water vulnerabilities on Maine’s outer islands 

As MDI Bio Lab’s Community Environmental Health Laboratory continues to expand the scope of the ‘’Healthy Water/Healthy Aging” citizen-engaged research project, it’s joining the Maine Seacoast Mission and Island Institute to extend the program’s outreach to Maine’s outer island communities.

Morgan Karns, a recent graduate of Virginia Tech, was hired as an Island Institute Fellow, and she is based at MDI Bio Lab’s campus in Bar Harbor. She will join the Seacoast Mission’s Sunbeam on trips to the islands, to learn, educate and solicit participation in the Healthy Water/Health Aging initiative.

Karns says that on an initial cruise from Matinicus to Isle au Haut and the Cranberries early in the fall she found that islanders are hungry for information about their drinking water and concerned about its integrity.

“Residents came to me and said things like ‘yeah, I don’t drink the water, it smells, it stains my sink, I’m worried about sea water,’ ” she says. “A lot of people on the islands brought forward that they were worried about their children or their grandchildren, or their niece and nephew. Because they are aware that contaminated water can affect development.”

Although public drinking water is federally regulated, private wells are not. Maine has among the highest per-capita reliance on private wells for drinking water in the United States. Mainers may be at elevated risk for exposure to substances such as arsenic and, as is increasingly of concern, PFAS or “forever chemicals”.

The “Healthy Water/Healthy Aging” project started as an effort to help older Mainers ensure that they are drinking healthy water by providing access to water testing while engaging them in a research study and health surveys to help understand the relationship between aging and exposures to potentially harmful substances.

Today it’s expanded its scope considerably, and MDI Bio Lab Principal Investigator Jane Disney, PhD., says she’s trying to engage not just Mainers over 55 years old, but all Mainers.

“After all, we are all aging,” she says. “And this partnership with the Seacoast Mission gives us a unique way to engage with islanders of all ages who want to know more about what’s in their drinking water, whether it might be contaminated, and what to do about that.”

The Seacoast Mission seeks to strengthen coastal and island communities by educating youth, supporting families, and promoting good health. The 74-foot, steel-hulled Sunbeam delivers Maine Seacoast Mission’s health, educational, and community building and services to residents of outer islands. Its periodic visits are a familiar and welcome site for these sometimes isolated communities.

“Not a single island community is immune to this problem,” says Douglas Cornman, the Maine Seacoast Mission’s Director of Island Services. “The presence of arsenic and other hard metals is a known fact on every island. I knew from my very first conversation with Jane Disney that the Maine Seacoast Mission had to collaborate in this study. One of our core values is helping communities to thrive. Access to safe drinking water is key to thriving.”

On her recent trip to the island on the Sunbeam, Island Fellow Morgan Karns says she introduced herself to residents as they lined up at flu shot clinics sponsored by the Mission.

“Dozens that we talked to said, ‘yes, I want to participate, please give me more materials and how can I get my water tested?’ ” Karns says. She notes that the Healthy Water/Healthy Aging program is aligned the Bio Lab’s s National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA), which engages teachers and students across Maine and New Hampshire as citizen scientists in collecting drinking water for analysis of arsenic and other toxic metals. On some islands, schoolchildren will be involved in collecting water samples from island residents as part of that program.

“I heard a lot of concern among islanders about water supplies being inundated or contaminated by seawater, particularly as our environment changes,” Karns says. “Our goal is to work together to reach a consensus that gives people the healthiest drinking water, and then hopefully the best quality of life, long term.”