All in a rainy day's work in Blue Hill

EHSC's Frances Jimenez works with a Blue Hill resident to take a water sample

On a rainy July afternoon, while many stayed indoors, three determined individuals set out on the streets of Blue Hill to educate citizens of the dangers of arsenic and other toxic chemicals that are common in private drinking water wells. Equipped with donated water test kits, discount test coupons, and factsheets, EHSC’s Emily Postman and volunteer interns Frances Jimenez and Jack Martell went door to door distributing information and discussing the importance of getting a drinking water test. Behind every door was a different story, some of past water tests that revealed high arsenic levels with treatment systems already in place, and many others with no recollection of testing at all.

So why did we choose this small coastal town as the first stop on our tour to ensure safe drinking water for all Maine families? As it turns out, Blue Hill has some of the highest levels of arsenic in their groundwater, translating to over 50% of 2012 publicly tested private wells showing levels above the federal safety guidelines of 10 ug/l. Arsenic is a chemical that has been linked to many dangerous forms of cancer including bladder, skin, and lung, as well as lowered IQ in school children. This silent poison is colorless, tasteless, and odorless. This means that the only way you know if you are being exposed to arsenic is by sending a water sample to a professional laboratory.

Our efforts felt worthwhile; in just one day we found plenty of people going about their daily lives without any knowledge of the dangerous contaminants that they may be drinking every day.

At one door, we were surprised to meet a man who already had the exact same test kit that we were handing out. It had been open, sitting on his kitchen table for weeks, he admitted, ready to use for a second well he had just installed that would supply water for his garden. While he thought he was covering his bases by getting his new well tested, he in fact had not tested his first well, the one that supplied the house’s drinking water, since he purchased his home over a decade ago. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services advises testing wells every three to five years for arsenic and every year for bacteria. After kindly showing us the well he had recently installed in his backyard and discussing the dangers arsenic posed to his family, he decided to test both wells. Ten minutes later, we had completed the test for his original well and submitted the test later that day to the lab.

Our goal is simple. We want all Maine residents to be aware of the dangers that could be present in their private drinking water. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services recently decided to reject an opportunity for the Maine CDC to reapply for federal funds to sustain educational outreach around the dangers of unsafe well water. This decision comes right on the heels of Governor’s veto of LD 1162, which also would have provided resources to the CDC for drinking water outreach. Without any resources allocated to having conversations with Mainers about their drinking water, our state is neglecting the growing need for outreach efforts like the one we demonstrated in Blue Hill.

While in Blue Hill, we proved that just a little effort can go a long way: in a single afternoon we reached over thirty homes, passed out 10 test kits, and performed 2 water tests. For any door-to-door effort, getting one in three families to take a test kit and think twice about drinking their tap water without testing it is a great step in the direction of raising awareness. We also know that community outreach has a ripple effect; many of the people we talked to said that they just don’t discuss this issue with their neighbors, but that they plan to start talking more with other people on their street about this arsenic problem.

With the success of this small test run, we hope our state health officials get on track with their efforts to reach residents all across Maine. Currently, less than half of people in Maine with private wells have had their water tested, even though arsenic contaminates 1 in 10 wells statewide. We’ve got work to do as a state to ensure that Mainers in rural areas are drinking safe clean water.

We were also lucky enough to have our outreach documented by the Bangor Daily News! You can check out the article, which describes our efforts within the larger context of recent political events, here.