MDI Biological Laboratory

SEPA / All About Arsenic Project

Can engaging students as citizen scientists in collecting drinking water samples for toxic metal analysis and sharing their findings with their communities result in changed behaviors and improved public health? This is a central question of the Community Lab’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA).

We have initiated a second NIH SEPA with a focus on science communication to support teachers and students in getting their message out. We plan to address additional questions, like, is a school-based approach more impactful than other types of community interventions in terms of improving public health? What skills do teachers and students need to communicate effectively and make a difference in their communities? Does engagement with locally relevant issues provide an incentive for learning and improve learning outcomes? How do these experiences impact self-efficacy and interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers?

As an outgrowth of this project, the Community Lab is collaborating with researchers across multiple disciplines to understand the seasonality of arsenic and other metals in well water. Heavy metals can contaminate private wells through geogenic sources and surface water seepage and run-off after storm events. People exposed to heavy metals via their well water risk acute and chronic toxicity, liver and kidney damage, and cancer. Through repeated well water sample collection from households, we are able to compare the chemical profiles of wells over time and spatial scales and are discovering that every well has its own story. Homeowners may need to know their “well story” to implement the most appropriate mitigation measures to prevent toxic metal exposure.

The Community Lab is working with additional collaborators to develop animal model approaches to identifying which well water samples may have negative health impacts. Are EPA drinking water standards for individual metals sufficient for determining drinking water safety? Our findings suggest that metal mixtures may need to be taken into consideration.


A collaborative public health project, the All About Arsenic project was initiated in 2015 by researchers at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) and Dartmouth College’s Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program.

By partnering teachers and researchers throughout Maine and New Hampshire, the overall project aims are: to expand private well water testing for arsenic and other elements and to build data literacy among students and the wider public.

The private well water data collected by students through a citizen science effort will inform the Maine Center for Disease Control and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, two government agencies working to improve well water testing rates and public health.

2015-2017: EPA Environmental Education Grant: Building School and Community Collaborations to Eliminate Arsenic from Drinking Water in Maine and New Hampshire: A Model for the US

Goal: Create and pilot a national model of environmental education that facilities schools and community organizations working together to address the public health risks of exposure to toxic contaminants in drinking water.

2018-2022: NIH Science Education Partnership Award: Data to Action: A Secondary School-Based Citizen Science Project to Address Arsenic Contamination of Well Water

Goal: Provide teachers and students with the tools, skills and support to make sense of the water quality data and then use the scientific process and data analysis to take action.

New and upcoming projects

Arsenic in All Seasons aims to assess how seasonality affects groundwater quality. By conducting monthly and opportunistic precipitation event sampling of 25 bedrock wells through the year, we can view annual variability in elemental abundances such as arsenic and uranium, two known contaminants in the New England Region. (Funding: NIH-SEPA Supplement, 2019-2022)

Orchards, Gardens, and Fields focuses on soil testing in regions where arsenical pesticides were likely to have been applied to agricultural fields during the last century. By coupling chemical testing of shallow well water, soil, and agricultural products grown in the soil, we will evaluate the long-lasting consequences of past pesticide use. This project is beginning in New England with plans to expand to the southeastern United States. (Funding: Pending)