Arsenic isn’t just a problem in Agatha Christie whodunits – it might be in your well 

  • Courtesy—NH DHHS

Monday, March 06, 2017

There’s plenty of news out there about man-made contaminants showing up in groundwater, but residents in five area towns, including Weare and Epsom, are about to be reminded that natural contaminants can also be a concern.

In a long-planned expansion of the state’s Targeted Arsenic and Uranium Public Health Study, 30 households on private wells in five central New Hampshire towns will be asked to provide samples of their water to help determine how much of these nasty-sounding byproducts of our geology are getting into their homes, and samples of their urine to show how much is making its way into their bodies.

“We had done an initial launch to a couple of local towns, allowed participants to self-select to participate in a study. This is an expansion that we had always planned that will select people in a more randomized way,” said Amanda Cauther, who manages the Biomonitoring Program for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The study is one of several efforts being made by state agencies and a group at Dartmouth College to understand and tackle the difficult public health problem of improving our scattered drinking water supplies.

It’s difficult because about 40 percent of New Hampshire’s population is served by private wells rather than large systems that are straightforward to test and treat. That includes me – and my well water is delicious, thank you very much.

This makes it hard to get a sense of how healthy and safe our drinking water is, since one well can be fine and the neighboring well has concerns.

And there is reason for concern. Based on geology and some sampling, officials fear as many as 50,000 people in New Hampshire could have elevated arsenic levels in their well water. Higher uranium levels often accompany arsenic.

At one time, most New Hampshire homes had “dug wells,” which go down a few dozen feet into soil and sand. These are vulnerable to surface pollution: If your lawn tractor tips over near your well and dumps its gasoline, you could be in trouble.

Partly as a result, most people nowadays have switched to “drilled wells,” which extend hundreds of feet into bedrock, collecting water that seeps out of the many small cracks in our underlying geology. Drilled wells are safe from surface pollution and less prone to running dry during droughts, but they can collect pollutants that seep farther down over time, as has been shown by the problems in Merrimack and in Seacoast towns over chemicals resulting from industrial processes.

But here’s the point of today’s column: Drilled wells can also collect pollutants released naturally by our bedrock, which brings us to arsenic and uranium.

Like radon, these are elements produced naturally by the type of rock under large parts of the state. (Although not all of it: There’s a big swath of 600 million-year-old rock below southern New Hampshire so ancient that most of its arsenic has already leaked out. It’s called the Massabesic Gneiss Complex, which would not be a good name for a band.)

Also like radon, these elements are colorless, odorless and tasteless, and although they can lead to nasty diseases such as bladder cancer, those diseases are slow to show up and easy to ignore in the short term.

“People don’t drink water with arsenic and instantly get sick,” said Kathrin Lawlor, community engagement coordinator with the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program at the Geisel School of Medicine, which is also targeting arsenic in our wells.

The result? We tend to dismiss the problem.

“It absolutely can be a challenge for people to remember to test their well water on a regular basis,” Lawlor said.

Figuring out how serious a problem this is in various parts of the state, and how to get the owners of thousands of separate wells to act, is why DHHS and the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Program are going to such lengths.

The Dartmouth Program, for example, tested three types of interventions in different communities to see which ones led the most well owners to test their water.

Surprisingly, they found that giving people information at the town dump wasn’t as effective as a more targeted communication campaign. I say surprisingly because everything of importance in my town happens at the dump on Saturday morning.

DHHS and Dartmouth aren’t alone in tackling the thorny issue of private drinking water. The Department of Environmental Services is also trying to help people know how to discover and react to contaminants in their wells by using, among other things, an interactive website punningly called Be Well Informed.

Arsenic is particularly complicated because we can also consume it in food and get it through the environment, which is why the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Program has a website specifically targeting it at “Arsenic and You,” tucked inside dartmouth.edu. This is also why the DHHS biomonitoring program includes a questionnaire to collect lifestyle data that might help explain any results.

The biomonitoring program already exists in Bow and Dunbarton, and as of last week, cards were mailed out in Deerfield, Epsom, Goffstown, New Boston and Weare. If you get one in the mail, don’t toss it. Just because a problem can’t be seen or tasted doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

“This isn’t a short process. With public health intervention, you have to take a long view if you want to see change,” Lawlor said.

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