Doctors, Scientists, Advocates Call on Legislators to Protect Mainers from Arsenic in Well Water
“Arsenic is the sleeping giant that must be addressed”
AUGUSTA—Maine children and families are being exposed to dangerous levels of arsenic in their well water and require legislation to protect their health and future, doctors and public health experts told Maine lawmakers at an impactful public hearing on Monday before the Maine Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.
The bill under consideration, LD 1943, will better protect the health of all Maine families by requiring the state to update the maximum amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water as well as provide free well-water testing to low-income families.
The bill is sponsored by Representative Lori Gramlich (D - Old Orchard Beach).
Sarah Woodbury, state advocacy director for the Environmental Health Strategy Center, testified: “Access to clean water should not depend on your income. We owe it to all Mainers, and especially to our children—who are most at risk from arsenic contamination—to take action. By both directing a standard more aligned with the health impacts and helping ensure access for low-income families, LD 1943 is a critical step in the right direction.”
Bill sponsor Rep. Gramlich testified: “No family should be exposed to high levels of arsenic simply because they cannot afford to test their well water. The public health and societal costs of arsenic exposure—not to mention the toll it takes on Maine families—can be avoided if we are proactive about providing people the tools they need to identify and mitigate exposure.”
Kelsey George, Ellsworth resident, described experiencing arsenic poisoning from contaminated well water at a rental apartment, and said: “In a state where over half the population drinks and cooks with well water, one in six wells is estimated to be unsafe, leaving more than 100,000 children and adults at risk. Nobody deserves to go through what I’ve been through. That’s why everybody should have access to testing, even if they can’t afford it.”
Dr. Syd Sewall, M.D., Hallowell-based pediatrician, testified: “Knowledge is power. If families are aware, they can take action.”
Jim Lenke, chemist and schoolteacher in Washington County, testified: “In Washington County—one of the poorest—50% of private wells historically have not been tested for arsenic… As a degreed chemist with two decades of experience in pharmaceuticals and cancer research, I can easily attest that arsenic is the sleeping giant that must be addressed.”
Dr. Jane Disney, Ph.D., of MDI Biological Laboratory, testified: “It makes good economic sense to invest in testing well water. The cost of cancer, heart disease, and special education services for children affected by chronic early childhood exposure to arsenic is far greater that the cost of well water tests and mitigation.”
Tracy Gregoire, Healthy Children’s Project coordinator of the Learning Disabilities Association of Maine, testified: “A 2014 study of Maine school children with elevated levels of arsenic in their water showed a decline of average IQ scores five to six points lower than their peers with clean water. …. On behalf of Maine children, Learning Disabilities Association urges this committee to vote unanimously ‘ought to pass’ so that we can better protect low income families, and join the ranks of other states protecting kids from harmful arsenic exposure.”
Caroline Wren, an environmental policy student studying well water in Maine at Colby College, testified: “I have spoken to hundreds of well users around the state, and many do not have access to clean drinking water in their homes or have never tested their water. If families cannot afford to test their wells, they do not know if they are drinking water with dangerous levels of arsenic. Test kits can cost upwards of $100 and remediation can sometimes cost thousands of dollars. …. There are so many barriers to accessing safe drinking water, the cost of testing should not be one of them.”
Shri Verrill, wetland scientist and co-founder of the Maine-based Alliance for Economic Democracy, testified on behalf of the Alliance: “Clean drinking water is a human right and if we are not making healthy drinking water available to our most vulnerable populations we will have failed as a government and failed as a community. I urge you to support LD 1943.”
A higher proportion of Mainers get their water from wells than any other state in the nation. Due to Maine’s unique geology, there are areas with high levels of naturally occurring arsenic in the bedrock. Arsenic causes a whole host of health issues including bladder, skin and lung cancer. Maine’s bladder cancer rate is 20% higher than the rest of the nation. Like its cousin lead, arsenic also harms children’s brains.
Maine currently considers the level 10ppb (parts per billion) of arsenic in water to be “safe.” That level was set in 2001 by the U.S. EPA. It was controversial even then, with EPA originally proposing 5ppb and many health scientists suggesting it should be lower. Unfortunately, updated science has continued to show that 10ppb is not health protective. In addition to the IQ studies, epidemiological studies have continued to show levels of arsenic in drinking water need to be set much lower to avoid increased rates of lung and bladder cancer.
State legislation passed in 2017 provided funding to help low-income families install filtration systems on wells that tested positive for high levels of arsenic. But despite progress with testing and remediation, arsenic exposure remains a serious public health crisis in Maine.
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The Environmental Health Strategy Center works to create a world where all people are healthy and thriving, with equal access to safe food and drinking water, and products that are toxic-free and climate-friendly.