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All Maine Families Deserve Affordable, Safe Drinking Water

Environmental Health Strategy Center and Prevent Harm
04.19.2017

Maine residents, business owners, and public health advocates call for support of bill to help low-income homeowners gain access to safe drinking water 

"We have arsenic levels over 30 times the safety threshold, and right now there is no funding available for water treatment for my family. I wonder if we will ever have a working farm, for my boys to live on, the way it was planned. Is arsenic killing my dreams?"

-- Joanie Hill, Searsport

AUGUSTA, Maine, April 19, 2017—Pregnant with her first child, Katelyn Costello Picard of Winthrop delivered a message today to Maine legislators: all Maine children deserve access to safe and affordable drinking water, no matter what their families’ incomes are or where they live.

Picard joined other rural Maine residents and business owners who spoke at a press conference and to the Joint Standing Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, calling for support of  LD 1263 “An Act to Ensure Affordable Safe Water for Families.” Sponsored by Senator Joyce Maker (R-Washington), the bill would expand the number of homeowners who can access financial assistance to purchase well water treatment systems.

Two years ago, before buying the first house they’ve owned, Picard and her husband learned that 45 percent of the wells in Winthrop are contaminated by unsafe levels of arsenic—not unusual for some regions of Maine, where half of all wells contain high levels of arsenic that seep into well water from the bedrock where wells are drilled. When tests of their soon-to-be home’s well water showed arsenic present in unsafe levels, the couple was able to pull together additional financial resources for a water treatment system. 

Now Picard is telling her story on behalf of other Maine families—the many families who cannot afford the costly treatment systems needed to combat arsenic in their well water.

“Throughout my pregnancy, I’ve known that I’m drinking treated, safe water at home, and that my baby and family will be able to safely drink, cook with, and bathe in it, so long as we maintain water treatment,” Picard said. “I can’t imagine how scary it would feel to know I was putting myself and my family at risk because I didn’t have enough money to get my well water treated and make it safe. As we learned, installing and maintaining treatment isn’t cheap.”

Arsenic in drinking water harms brain development in young children. A 2014 study of Kennebec County schoolchildren concluded that arsenic in well water could contribute to a lowering of IQ scores by an average 5 – 6 points.

Arsenic also causes bladder, skin, and lung cancers. Bladder cancer rates are the highest in the country in Maine and other northern New England states—20 percent higher in Maine than the U.S. average.

"For our rural communities that rely on wells for drinking and cooking, it’s so important to make sure kids and families can afford safe drinking water,” the bill’s sponsor Senator Maker said.

The State of Maine enforces the federal health standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act for public water systems, but residents with household wells get no such protection. That has created a public health crisis in Maine, a state where half the population drinks and cooks with well water, and one in eight wells is estimated to be contaminated with unsafe levels of arsenic.

“Making safe water affordable to all must be a priority of our state’s elected officials and other Maine leaders,” said Emma Halas-O’Connor, environmental health campaign manager of the Maine-based public health organization Environmental Health Strategy Center and its partner Prevent Harm​.

“The costs of installing and maintaining drinking-water treatment systems can exceed a family’s ability to pay and pose an impossible burden for the families of the 20 percent of Maine children living in poverty.”

The Strategy Center and Prevent Harm are leading the call for Maine legislation that makes safe drinking water available and affordable to all Maine families.

Mainers testifying at the bill’s public hearing said they hope bipartisan support for the bill will carry it through to enactment. 

Charlie Ward, a fourth-generation owner of the family-owned and run Ward Water, Inc. in Steep Falls, said his company is “in full support of LD 1263 and any initiatives that would allow more Maine families access to an abundant supply of clean, healthy, reliable drinking water.”

Richard Minoty, a Maine senior citizen, said he supports the bill because of his experience with his own ravaging skin cancer. Minoty said he didn’t know about arsenic in drinking water until a doctor in Belgrade treating his cancer told him to test the tap water in the housing complex in Belgrade, where he lived. Seeing the results, the doctor told Richard, “Move out of there, today.”

Joanie Hill, whose family moved to Searsport to live in the farmhouse where she grew up, dreamed her children would care for and inherit the small farm. But then her children’s hair stopped growing, Joanie felt constantly ill, and farm animals started to die. A doctor advised her to test her well water for arsenic, and she described the results this way, in her testimony:

"We have arsenic levels over 30 times the safety threshold, and right now there is no funding available for water treatment for my family. I wonder if we will ever have a working farm, for my boys to live on, the way it was planned. Is arsenic killing my dreams?"

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Environmental Health Strategy Center is a public health organization based in Maine and ​working for healthy people thriving in a healthy economy. We educate and organize people and partners to advocate for two intertwined solutions: reducing humans' exposure to toxic chemicals in food, drinking water, and products, and sustainably manufacturing products that are safe for people and the planet. Together, these solutions can reduce disease and disability linked to toxic chemicals—cancer, infertility, learning disabilities, birth defects, autism, allergies, and asthma—and create a healthy economy based on good-paying jobs and careers created by manufacturing safer, sustainable products. Prevent Harm is our action partner.