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Maine People at Risk from Arsenic Contamined Drinking Water Call for Legislation to Increase Well-Water Testing

Prevent Harm and Environmental Health Strategy Center
04.07.2017
Category:
News Releases

“There are thousands of Mainers across the state that are unaware their families are at risk. These people are your friends, your family, your children, your grandchildren, your great grandchildren. We need to pass this bill to protect the people we love.”

- Samantha Schildroth, Saco

AUGUSTA, Maine, April 7, 2017—A few years ago, Joanie Hill and her family moved back to Searsport, to live in the house she grew up in, the one her parents built on the family’s small farm. Her teenage son was especially excited, because he dreamed of growing up to inherit and care for the place.

But then the Hill children’s hair stopped growing. And the family’s farm animals died—their rabbits, a cow, and chickens. Plus, Joanie Hill never felt well, so she went to see a doctor.

His diagnosis? Arsenic poisoning. When the family had their well water tested, arsenic levels were 30 times higher than the national safety standard for drinking water. 

Hill and other Maine parents, doctors, educators, and public health advocates are calling for the state to act on a public health crisis that already affects an estimated 100,000 Maine families. At the Maine State House today, they urged members of the Joint Standing Committee on Health and Human Services to support LD 454, “An Act to Ensure Safe Drinking Water for All Maine Families,” sponsored by Representative Karen Vachon (R-Scarborough).

“We’re here today because we need to expand education and outreach so that families are able to protect themselves before it's too late,” Hill said. “By the time I learned about the risk, I had been drinking unsafe water for my whole life.”

The bill would allow the Maine Center for Disease Control to increase its education and outreach efforts, with the goal of significantly boosting the number of Maine people testing their water. Currently, less than half of homeowners with well water have gotten a comprehensive water test that includes arsenic. The bill creates a Safe Well Water Fund within the CDC to raise awareness about well water testing, and provides more accessible information for both homeowners and renters who live in homes with well water.

Representative Karen Vachon, a Scarborough Republican who is the bill’s sponsor, says she believes her bill is essential for getting critical health information to Maine families. 

“Water is the source of all life. Here in Maine where we are proud of our natural resources, its easy to see why many people have no idea their well water could be contaminated” said Representative Vachon. “You can’t smell, taste, or see arsenic in water. We need LD 454 to raise awareness and make sure Maine people know to get their wells tested.”

Around 1 in 8 wells in Maine are contaminated with levels of arsenic that exceed federal safe drinking water standards. In some regions of the state, half of all wells contain high arsenic levels. Arsenic seeps into well water from the bedrock where wells are drilled. 

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 in Maine are 20 percent higher than the U.S. average, which the National Cancer Institute believes could be associated with the population’s higher exposure to arsenic.

“As a pediatrician, arsenic toxicity reminds me of lead poisoning -- coma and severe brain injury at high doses; learning and cognitive issues with lower exposure,” said Syd Sewall, who presented testimony on behalf of Physicians for Social Responsibility of Maine. “Arsenic has the added impact on cancer risk.” 

Gathering after the bill’s public hearing, public advocates are hoping that bipartisan support for the bill will carry it through to enactment.

“It is encouraging to see that safe drinking water is an issue that brings many Republicans, Democrats, and Independents together” said Emily Postman of Prevent Harm. “If we can pass LD 454, we can jumpstart efforts to protect rural Maine kids and families from harmful exposure, and we can make Maine a leader among states where high levels of arsenic in drinking water are threatening public health.”

LD 454 is similar to legislation spearheaded by Representative Drew Gattine in 2015, which gathered much bipartisan support but ultimately fell two votes short of a veto override in the Maine House of Representatives. At that time, the Maine CDC was receiving a two-year $300,000 federal grant from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the purpose of well water public education. Soon after the Governor’s veto, the Maine CDC was notified by the LePage Administration that the agency would not be permitted to reapply for the grant to continue its work.

Proponents of the bill say that the lack of federal funds should make support for the LD 454 even stronger, since the it would enable the Maine CDC to resume some outreach activities it was forced to stop or curtail after federal grant funds dried up. The bill adds allocates a new funding stream to the Maine CDC for well water public education, by collecting a $10 fee on water tests conducted by the state’s Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory.

York County native Samantha Schildroth believes it is vital for the Maine CDC to renew its efforts to increase well water testing. She is worried about her family members in Hollis, where more than 40 percent of the wells are arsenic contaminated, and Saco, where one in three wells are contaminated. 

“There are thousands of Mainers across the state that are unaware their families are at risk,” Schildroth told legislators. “These people are your friends, your family, your children, your grandchildren, your great grandchildren. We need to pass this bill to protect the people we love.” 

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Prevent Harm is the action partner of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, 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.