Environment
5:00 am
Fri June 20, 2014

Arsenic Is Prevalent In Well Water, But Treatment Is Readily Available

The "filter train" on display at Secondwind Water Treatment
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

This is the second of two stories about arsenic in well-water.

Almost twenty years ago, Joe Ayotte got a well drilled at his house in Concord.

“As you can see it’s a bit of a mud-pit, and it’s very red,” says Ayotte surveying the site of his artesian well, which has since been retired from service, but continues to leach iron-stained water onto his lawn.

Ayotte had some bad luck. The well must have hit what he calls “rotten rock” and brought up massive amounts of minerals in the water, including so much iron that it destroyed his fixtures.

It also had high levels of arsenic, which in some ways was a little ironic.

“It was the worst case scenario for me, a lot of yield of really bad water,” he says, chuckling. Ayotte is, after all one of the foremost experts in the arsenic in the region’s geology.

After struggling to treat the water for a few years, Ayotte opted to do a sort of end around. He dug a brand new well, of his own design.

It’s a dug well – meaning it captures water from the upper-most layers of soil and rock and doesn’t go into the bedrock – but to keep bacteria and other surface nastiness out of it he employed some basic geologic knowledge. He’s created a 20’ x 20’ pit, the bottom half full of gravel and the top full of clay.

“It was essentially two thirteen-yard dump truck loads of material, not trivial material, it was a lot of material,” Ayotte says.

The gravel is the like the reservoir: spaces between the stones fill slowly with water trickling in from the soil all around it. The clay is like a cap: it’s packed so tight that surface contaminants don’t seep in.

The new well was pretty cheap, toward the lower end of what drilled bedrock wells cost, but he did a lot of the work himself so he says it’s hard to compare the costs.

But best of all, the arsenic, along with the iron and the other problems, was gone.

Now, years later, with a few tweaks he and the USGS are moving to patent the design, which he says will work for certain houses with the right kind of soil and topography.

“Not that it’s a replacement for drilled wells by any stretch, but for people who have problematic drilled bedrock wells, this could be a potential very viable option for them,” Ayotte says.

And there are plenty of people who may have problematic wells.

Getting on the “Filter Train”

There’s a band of bedrock in Eastern New England that makes the region one of about a dozen hotspots in the country for arsenic in drinking wells.

While it can sound terrifying that there are trace amounts of such an iconic poison in some people’s water, it can be fixed, though in New Hampshire the solution to the problem will likely come more from education than regulation.

The US Geological survey estimates that nearly 50,000 people in Rockingham, Strafford and Hillsborough counties alone may have arsenic in their wells. Of the 40 percent of people who have a private well in the Southeast of the state, as many as 1 in 5 could have unhealthy levels of the chemical, putting them at higher risk for certain cancers, and other health impacts.

Most of those people are not professional hydro-geologists like Ayotte, who can just design themselves a new well. For most, after a well test showing there is arsenic in their water, they end up looking into water treatment systems. And sellers of those systems say people have begun paying attention to invisible, slow health hazards.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

“I’ll say we’ve been doing this for 25 years and in that period of time, the amount of times per week that the concern is totally about health issues has probably tripled,” says Christine Fletcher, owner of Secondwind Water Systems in Manchester.

There are solutions for arsenic in well water, as for nearly every water quality problem.

“What we do is we put in what we call the treatment loop,” says Fletcher indicating a swooping set of pipes in a display room.

This loop can be attached to water softeners for hard water, aerators that remove radon, and of course reverse osmosis machines or other filters that get rid of arsenic. Water that has more than one contaminant can be run through multiple filters, which Fletcher calls the “Filter Train”.

As a ballpark number, Fletcher says cleaning each contaminant from your house’s water will cost around $3,000. But for water with only arsenic, you can even install a relatively inexpensive under the sink filter, for just a couple hundred dollars.

But the real problem is you can’t fix what you don’t know about.

Knowing What to Ask

“It didn’t specifically look for arsenic, and I didn’t ask for it at the time because I didn’t know it was an issue,” says a homeowner took part in a Columbia University study that linked Arsenic in well water to decreased IQ in children, and asked not to have his name used.

He didn’t discover there was arsenic in his well until taking part in the study, and says he thinks there are plenty of people like him who don’t know enough to ask for an arsenic test.

“I knew enough to ask for a water test. I got the test done,” he says, but “I didn’t specifically ask for that element so when the test comes back: it looks good, everything’s fine.”

So who gets the word out?

Some towns take charge in this area: Holderness to put out mailers about well-testing with their property tax bills this spring.

Credit Town of Holderness

A few towns – like Pelham, Windham and Hollis – require testing to get a certificate of occupancy for a home.

This year lawmakers crafted a bill that would have put a notification on the form that realtors give to home-buyers.

But it worried realtors. One sentence in particular would have advised home-buyers that arsenic is  “occurring at unhealthy levels in more than 1 in 5 wells in certain areas of the state.”

“While certainly that’s true in certain portions of the state, in other portions of the state arsenic occurs at far lower levels,” Bob Quinn, Director of Government affairs with the New Hamphire Association of Realtors told state Senators when the bill came before them in March, “We’d like to try to work with DES to come up with some language that might not cause some concerns to property buyers, especially in western part of the state where arsenic is less prevalent.”

Senate lawmakers took the one-in-five language out of the bill; the bill’s sponsors in the House objected. In the end, it died on the negotiating table.

“The House really felt to have realtors change their contract forms just to add very little did not make sense,” says Representative Donna Schlachman, a Democrat from Exeter who was on the House team working the bill.

Over the years, proposals that would make testing mandatory tend to go nowhere. The state’s independent character likely has a lot to do with that.

“People born and raised in New Hampshire they kind of know you’re on your own. It’s live free or die, that’s why you live here,” says Secondwind’s Fletcher, who has served on the state well-water board, “But you move up from Connecticut or New Jersey or Massachusetts where there’s a lot more regulations, and you come up here and you just assume that the water’s fine.”

So with most towns not requiring much beyond basic testing, and difficult politics at the state level, it will likely be up to state agencies to get the word out.

“It’s not the flavor of the month, it’s not going away,” says Cynthia Klevens, with the drinking water bureau at DES, “in fact health effects even below the standard are being detected.”

There is good indication that a concerted outreach push could work.

In Maine, from 2004 to 2009 informational campaigning boosted testing numbers from 25 percent up to 42 percent.

And here in New Hampshire, arsenic has been in the news a lot lately. There are studies of arsenic underway at Dartmouth and results of a study from the USGS just came out.

With all of this, the state lab says during the first five months of the year, the percent of people asking for a well test that includes arsenic has more than doubled. Usually only around forty percent of people ordering tests ask for arsenic, but through May that number was more like 87 percent.