(First published on June 16, 2016, on State of the Planet.)
A new initiative aims to help homeowners in New Jersey cope with arsenic contamination in private wells—a problem that has only come to light in recent years, and about which many homeowners are still unaware.
In a series of fact sheets and student-produced videos, the project provides important information about the problem to help homeowners understand what may be going on, and how to clean up their water. To watch the videos and read up on the problem, go to the New Jersey Arsenic Awareness Initiative website.
Arsenic is a natural but toxic element that, because of local geological conditions, shows up in underground water in many areas of the country and many parts of the world. It is colorless, odorless and tasteless, and the only way to find it is through arsenic-specific testing. Arsenic rarely shows up in high enough concentrations to be a risk for outright poisoning. But exposure to even low doses over time has been tied to many chronic diseases, including skin, bladder, kidney and lung cancers, heart and other lung ailments, diabetes mellitus and cognitive impairment in children.
Through government regulation, arsenic in public water supplies is measured and treated and so is rarely a problem. But private wells are another matter. Few states have any controls in place, so it is up to individual homeowners to take responsibility for the problem.
New Jersey has a 14-year-old law that requires testing for arsenic in private wells as part of any real estate transaction, including home sales and rentals (Oregon is the only other state that does so). The state requires the private well testing in 12 counties in the northern and central part of the state, where the problem is particularly acute. New Jersey also has one of the toughest standards for allowable arsenic levels, 5 micrograms per liter (the federal standard is 10).
About a million people in New Jersey, 11 percent of the population, drink water from private wells, according to a 2010 report (a pdf) by the United States Geological Survey. Results from tests conducted from 2002-2012 under the New Jersey Private Well Testing Act show that more than 10 percent of wells tested exceed state limits for arsenic in drinking water, according to the New Jersey Arsenic Awareness Initiative. In some townships more than 40 percent of private wells tested exceeded state limits.
The initiative has just posted the latest of four videos explaining the problem and what to do about it on its website, which is hosted by Columbia.
Under the National Institute of Environmental Health Science Superfund Research Program, researchers from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the Mailman School of Public Health have been investigating both the sources of arsenic contamination, and the long-term health effects of exposure both in the United States and abroad. An ongoing program in Bangladesh has established links between arsenic exposure and many chronic diseases. And a study in Maine established a link between exposure to arsenic and impaired cognitive development in children.
The four new videos for New Jersey residents were produced by students in a Barnard College workshop on sustainable development, taught by Professor Martin Stute, who is also an adjunct senior research scientist at Lamont-Doherty. In 2011, five students—Ashley Walker, Aviva Hamavid, Helen Kilian, Lucy Siguenza and Sarah Lyon—were assigned to work with the Hunterdon County Department of Health to educate Hunterdon County residents about the risk posed by arsenic contamination of private well water. Their addition goal was to spur the residents to test and treat their water. The result was the first video.
Subsequent classes worked with the New Jersey Geological and Water Survey and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Science, Research and Environmental Health. They produced three more videos, with help from the Barnard Instructional Media and Technology Services department and scientists working with the Superfund Research Program’s “research translation team” at Lamont.
The team takes the work scientists have done about the occurrence of arsenic and the health effects and puts it into a form that’s helpful for the people who are being exposed to it, said Stuart Braman, an adjunct associate research scientist at Lamont who has been working in the program since 2007.
But convincing people to actually test and fix the problem will take some extra effort. In a just-published series of papers, researchers led by Lamont scientists examined the impact of New Jersey’s arsenic testing law and efforts to promote testing. They found that while rates of testing have risen since the law was passed, not everyone is getting on board. The studies found people with higher education and income were more likely to conduct the tests, suggesting that more needs to be done, particularly among lower-income and less educated homeowners.