With new arsenic law, N.H. becomes leader in environmental regulation

Monitor staff
Published: 7/15/2019 5:34:38 PM

It’s pretty easy to ignore scientific evidence when it leads to unpleasant conclusions, as everybody can attest who has looked away from data about our need to eat less and exercise more.

So we should celebrate the times when evidence actually carries the day.

One of those times happened Friday when Gov. Chris Sununu signed a law lowering the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water, putting New Hampshire in the unusual position of being way ahead of the pack on environmental regulation. We’re second only to New Jersey in lowering the standard from the federal level of 10 parts per billion, down to 5 ppb.

This change wasn’t due to corporate lobbying or a Kickstarter campaign that went viral or sudden panic among activists. It was the result of slow accumulation of information and experience from people and organizations that earn respect because they show that they know what they’re talking about. How refreshing!

“I was very pleasantly surprised when it kind of seemed to sail through,” said Brian Jackson, a research professor at Dartmouth College.

I talked to Jackson because he has been part of Dartmouth’s Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program for his roughly 15 years at the school. (“I spend my whole life measuring parts per billion,” he semi-joked.)

The Dartmouth program has been steadily working on research and public education about the arsenic that naturally appears in our groundwater for years, which is one of the reasons that the subject is taken seriously here. Group members, including Jackson, even discussed arsenic in an early Science Cafe N.H. in Concord, but that was so long ago I’ve lost the record about exactly when they showed up.

They’re not only ones who have been plugging away at the issue. The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services has long been concerned about this issue with a program to test private wells and plenty of outreach.

They recommended in January that the legislature lower the limit from the 10 parts per billion established by the EPA in 2006 – a reduction from the earlier limit of 50 ppb – down to 5.

I suspect the issue sailed through because in most cases it won’t be too expensive to meet the standard. Jackson said that usually it only requires that filters in existing systems be changed more often.

Virtually all of the arsenic in our groundwater is natural. (Despite the word “Superfund” in the Dartmouth research group’s title, they don’t limit themselves to super-polluted sites.)

It seeps out of our bedrock into aquifers, and when we stick a straw into those underground water supplies we get the arsenic along with it. Arsenic was part of pesticides once used on orchards and other farm sites, so some has entered the soil through human activity, but that appears to be a minor component.

Being natural doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Arsenic in water has long been shown to cause increased rates of bladder cancer and lung cancer, and it seems to be correlated with cardiovascular disease. And while scientists still don’t know exactly what exactly Element No. 33 on the periodic table is doing to cause these reactions, it damages us all. Drinking less of it will be a good thing.

“It’s fantastic to be part of a project that has a positive impact on human health,” said Jackson.

To learn more about the subject, including how and whether to test your own well, check Arsenic and You, a website from the Dartmouth folks.


On the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, you can attend a free Science Cafe talking about moon science and travel in the past, present and maybe future!

Where: McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, 2 Institute Drive, Concord.

When: Tuesday, July 16, 7 pm.

For more information: ScienceCafeNH.org

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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