Session 3 – All About Arsenic: Eliminating arsenic exposure in Maine and New Hampshire

Two Training Contact Hours are available for this session from the Maine CDC Drinking Water Program. Participants interested in applying should email

Wednesday, March 31, 10:00AM-12:00PM

Jane E. Disney, MDI Biological Laboratory;
Karen Bieluch, Dartmouth College

Most people in Maine and New Hampshire derive their drinking water from private wells. Often these groundwater reserves are contaminated with arsenic, in many cases far exceeding the federal EPA limit of 10 ppb, making exposure to arsenic one of the most pressing public health issues in both states.

  • Maine and New Hampshire have among the highest per capita reliance on private wells for drinking water in the U.S. at 56% and 46% respectively, representing approximately 725,000 people on private well water in Maine and 624,000 in New Hampshire.
  • Private wells are largely unregulated, and the burden is on homeowners to test their well water and mitigate any health hazards. Unfortunately, the vast majority of well owners are not aware of the arsenic problem and do not test their wells.

These facts are especially problematic since numerous studies associate exposure to inorganic arsenic with adverse health effects, including cancer of the bladder and other organs, diabetes, heart disease, reproductive and developmental problems, and cardiovascular, pulmonary, immunological, neurological, reproductive, and endocrine problems.

This session will include a panel presentation and discussion of current efforts and various approaches to addressing the issue of arsenic in well water. Part of the inspiration for this session grew from our work on an NIGMS Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) funded project in which teachers and scientist partners are working collaboratively, engaging students as citizen scientists in a well-water monitoring effort to advance public health goals while developing data literacy skills. Updates on this effort will be shared and opportunities for networking explored.

Session Schedule

10:00AM-11:00PM – Panel I

11:00AM-12:00PM – Panel II


Panel I

Data to Action: A Secondary School-Based Citizen Science Project to Address Arsenic Contamination of Well Water

Anna Farrell
MDI Laboratory, Bar Harbor, ME

A video of this talk is available

In Maine and New Hampshire, arsenic contamination of well water is one of the most pressing public health issues. Most people in rural areas of these states derive their drinking water from private wells, which often have arsenic levels above the EPA limit of 10 ppb. Arsenic can cause cancer, cardiovascular, and other health problems. We will share outcomes of the first three years of a five-year NIGMS Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) funded project in which we have engaged middle and high school students from Maine and New Hampshire as citizen scientists in collecting over 2,000 well water samples for arsenic and other contaminant analysis. Students have learned to analyze their data and share information with their communities. They have found that 62% of samplers have not or do not know if their wells were tested for arsenic before. They also discovered that 25% of all wells tested were above the New Hampshire Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 5 µg/L. Addressing this issue in secondary science classrooms provides context for students to engage in scientific inquiry, and motivation for them to construct knowledge and meaning through the process of discovery. Some individual homeowners have begun to mitigate arsenic in their well water. The ultimate goal of this project is to move “Data to Action” by providing communities with the resources and information they will need to act on this public health issue at local and state levels.

Involving Students as Citizen Scientists in Testing Well Water for Arsenic: A teacher’s perspective

Jon Ramgren1, Juyoung K. Shim2
1. Waterville High School, Waterville, ME
2. University of Maine Augusta, Augusta, ME

A video of this talk is available

As part of a state-wide initiative, Waterville High School has been engaging students as citizen scientists to assess arsenic levels in well water over the last three years. The students have reached out beyond the school to include friends and neighbors and to collect water samples from camps. They found elevated arsenic in many of the 202 well samples that have been analyzed to date. Nearly 20% of wells exceeded the EPA Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 10 ppb. New Hampshire has lowered the MCL to 5 ppb. The number of wells of concern jumps to 33.7% when the 5 ppb MCL limit is considered. In order to communicate with their families and neighbors, the students put together a PowerPoint presentation and shared it at a community meeting in May 2019. They also made a film for PBS in which they communicated their concern and ideas for solutions. Students like the project because they feel like they are making a difference. Students are learning data literacy skills while contributing to the state’s database of information regarding well water quality and communities that are a risk.

Enhancing Student Engagement and Learning through Project Based Learning in their Community: Lessons from High School and College Classrooms

Mary Wright1 and Nicholas Baer2
1. Kearsarge Regional High School, North Sutton, NH
2. Colby Sawyer College, New London, NH

A video of this talk is available.

Engaging students in applied project based learning is a goal for primary through post-secondary students. Student engagement and learning if further enhanced when the study is real world and impacts the community in which they live. We will share our experience integrating the well water study in a high school introductory chemistry course as well as in a college water resource course. Highlights include: researching groundwater contaminants, student collection and management of water sampling, students coordinating with community members, and compiling and analyzing data in multiple ways. Students built data literacy and quantitative skills, developed responsibility for projects and their outcomes, as well as increased student ownership of their learning. We will share some methods, insights, student feedback and outcomes.

Panel I Discussion

Impacts of Arsenic Exposure
Risk in Maine and New Hampshire
School-based Citizen Science Efforts to Eliminate Arsenic from Drinking Water

Panel II

Spatial and Temporal Patterns of Private Well Water Quality: A View from Mt. Desert Island, Maine

Sarah Hall1, Gabriela Moroz1, Anna Farrell2, Jane Disney2, Bruce Stanton3
1. College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, ME
2. MDI Laboratory, Bar Harbor, ME
3. Microbiology and Immunology, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH

A video of this talk is available

The “All about Arsenic” project is a collaboration initiated by the MDI Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) and Dartmouth College enabling private well sampling in Maine and New Hampshire, while offering educators an opportunity to engage their students in a societally relevant project fostering data literacy. College of the Atlantic researchers extended this ongoing study, sampling an additional 150 private wells in a focused location on northern Mt. Desert Island (MDI). As this region of MDI hosts different bedrock types, this study aims to assess spatial variations in groundwater quality considering geologic variations. Initial results suggest that groundwater components do generally correlate with geologic features, such as bedrock types and fault locations. With multiple sampling events between 2016 and 2019, these additional data also highlight possible seasonal variations in water yield and water quality. Further, as some private well owners filter their water for various constituents, these data suggest that their filters do not always produce the intended results. Upon resampling some wells during the dry season (~June-Oct) to compare to the wet season (~Nov-May) results, new data suggests changes in arsenic abundance of more than double in some cases. In addition to providing well water quality data to well owners, this project has fostered collaborations between researchers at COA, MDI High School and MDIBL and has provided an opportunity for college students to practice skill building in terms of data literacy, scientific process and communication, GIS techniques, research ethics, geologic processes, water chemistry, data management and analysis, and public policy.

Beyond Arsenic: Effect Directed Analysis to Predict Health Outcomes of Chemical Mixtures in the Drinking Water

Remy Babich1 (Student), Juyoung Shim2, Jane Disney3, Nishad Jayasundara1
1. University of Maine, Orono, ME
2. University of Maine Augusta, ME
3. Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, Bar Harbor, ME

A video of this talk is available

Contaminated drinking water is an important public health consideration in New England where well water is often found to contain arsenic and other metals such as cadmium, lead, and uranium. Chronic or high level exposure to these metals have been associated with multiple acute and chronic diseases, including cancers and impaired neurological development. While individual metal levels are often regulated, adverse health effects of metal mixtures, especially at concentrations considered safe for human consumption remain unclear. Here, we utilize a multivariate analysis that evaluates the chemical constituents of 92 drinking well water samples, collected in Maine and New Hampshire, with behavioral outcomes using the zebrafish model. To collect these samples, a citizen science approach was used, that engaged local teachers, students, and scientific partners. Our analysis of 4,016 mixture combinations show that changes in zebrafish behavior are highly mixture dependent, and indicate that certain combinations of metals are more significant drivers of behavioral toxicity. Our data emphasize the need to consider low-level chemical mixture effects and provide a framework for a more in depth analysis of drinking water samples. We also provide evidence for the efficacy of utilizing citizen science in research, as the broader impact of this work is the expansion of knowledge among local communities of improving their own water quality.

Legislative Efforts to Address the Arsenic Contamination Problem

Sergio Cahueque, Environmental Health Strategy Center

A video of this talk is available

Arsenic can harm health for a lifetime. Arsenic exposure triggers bladder, liver, and skin cancer, and harms brain development, setting up children for lifelong challenges. Yet, tens of thousands of Mainers are ingesting unsafe amounts of arsenic that come from the bedrock where wells are drilled. Maine state data shows that in a state where half the population drinks and cooks with well water, one in six wells is estimated to be unsafe. That leaves more than 100,000 children and adults at risk. Public water supplies in towns and cities are regulated, but rural residents’ wells remain exempt from Safe Drinking Water Act protections and other regulations.

The purpose of this presentation is to talk about the legislative efforts that have taken place in Maine to further protect people by addressing the arsenic contamination problem that affects thousands of people across the state.

In 2017 legislators came together to pass two laws in Maine to ensure access to safe and affordable drinking water, an issue of environmental justice. One new law funds educational outreach to boost water testing to identify arsenic-contaminated wells. The second invests $500,000 to help lower-income well owners pay for water treatment to slash arsenic exposure.

Passing these two laws was a strong start to our long-term campaign to guarantee the basic human right of affordable access to safe drinking water.

In 2021 we are working on legislation that requires the state to provide free testing to families who rely on well water but cannot afford a test kit, require landlords to test for Arsenic contamination in well water and disclose that information to tenants, and set a new and more protective Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for arsenic.

Panel II Discussion

Spatial and Temporal Distribution of the Arsenic Problem
Research-based Approaches to Promoting Public health in High Risk Areas
Advocacy for Better Public Health Measures Related to Arsenic in Well Water