On Wednesday, March 4, students from Emily Lesher’s Environmental Chemistry course sent out a request for local well water samples from the College community. That request kicked off a semester-long study to test arsenic levels in private water sources of the College’s community members. Working with state geologists, students will use the samples collected in March to educate the community about arsenic contamination, and they will contribute the data to the Maine Data Portal’s findings on arsenic well water concentrations.

Infamous for its potential to harm our health, arsenic in well water is rarely known to cause outright fatalities in the United States, but it can lead to harmful chronic illnesses that are themselves deadly. “Arsenic is a Class A human carcinogen by the US Environmental Protection Agency,” explains Erin Wright-Little ’16, a participating student overseeing aspects of the project’s management. “Over-exposure in your water can lead to many long-term health effects such as a decrease in children’s IQs, an increased risk for many forms of cancer, and damage to the nervous, respiratory, circulatory, and gastrointestinal systems.”

In preparation for the study, Dr. Lesher had her students read a study recently published in Environmental Health that tested the connection between drinking water with trace amounts of arsenic and the IQ performance in Maine fourth-graders. The results showed a negative correlation, with children who consumed above 5 micrograms per liter (ug/L) showing a five to six point drop in IQ, which is a sobering statistic considering that Maine’s standards allow for amounts up to 10 ug/L.

“This is why it’s important for individuals to know about the health and developmental effects,” says Dr. Lesher, who chose this project for her class not merely to expand upon the limited research available but to also have an impact at the local level. “One student practiced on samples from her own family’s well and found the levels at 70 ug/L. You can bet she is happy to have that information now. It’s empowering for my students to be able to pass on valuable information to community members.”

According to stats made available by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of the homes in the state get drinking water from private, residential wells. In Standish, an estimated 22 percent of these wells have been shown to have arsenic concentrations exceeding health standards.

“Arsenic is naturally found in soil and water,” says Wright-Little, who notes that research shows arsenic occurrence has been linked to regional bedrock geology. “Each town has different kinds of geology, which leads to different levels of arsenic [varying] with soil make-up and the age of your water system.”

Well water testing is on-going and results from the samples will begin to be available within the coming weeks. To learn more about the project or to have your own water studied, email Erin Wright-Little at ewrightlittle@sjcme.edu.