Arsenic in Our Water
The Vienna Kimball Pond Road Spring
Dan Onion, MD, MPH
Mt. Vernon/Vienna Health Officer
Contaminants in our home water supplies are a perennial concern to health officials, especially here in Maine where fewer than half of our citizens use town water sources. The use of multiple, and often single-family wells and springs make it difficult to ensure everybody’s water is safe. Of course, no one in Mt. Vernon or Vienna is on a public (town) water supply. And many use the old spring on Vienna’s Kimball Pond Road as a drinking water source because it carries on a nearly 200-year-old local tradition -- and it tastes good.
By far, the most common contaminant in Maine wells and springs is fecal matter (poop) from humans, or more commonly, domestic animals. Fecal matter can cause various kinds of gastrointestinal illness. But in some areas, like our towns, arsenic contamination is also common. About 30% of Mt Vernon and 5% of Vienna wells, if tested, will show elevated, potentially dangerous levels of arsenic, a “heavy metal” element, closely related to lead, cadmium, mercury and chromium on the chemical periodic table.
Arsenic can interfere with cellular metabolism by blocking the burning of sugar in our subcellular engines, known as mitochondria. It has been recognized as a poison since ancient times, while today it is most commonly used to make herbicides and pesticides. Think of New Sweden Maine 20 years ago, where a potato farmer, apparently upset at his fellow parishioners, added an arsenic-based herbicide to their post-Sunday service coffee, killing a couple and sickening several others.
Over the past decade, new scientific findings have led to greater concern about arsenic in our drinking water. The research has shown that even lower levels of chronic arsenic exposure can cause disease. For this reason, in 2012, the definition of a “safe level” of arsenic was reduced from 50 parts per billion or micrograms/liter, to 10. Chronic use of water with above 10 levels, especially over 20, for many months and years, can cause fatigue, blood in urine and kidney damage (mostly in children), painful nerve irritation, rashes and white lines in the nails, increased cancer rates (in bladder, lung, kidney, and liver), and dementia. Exposure to levels over 50 parts per billion in drinking and cooking water, within a month of regular use, can cause acute symptoms, including vomiting, bloody diarrhea, blood in the urine and pain in the upper abdomen, heart failure and irregular pulse.
There are three ways to report arsenic levels in water: as milligrams/liter, as parts/billion, or as micrograms/liter. The upper limit of tolerable levels now is 0.010 milligram/liter, or 10 micrograms/liter (which, said another way, is parts/billion). The Maine state lab reports in micrograms/liter, whereas many private labs use milligrams/liter.
The Historical Society acquired the Kimball Pond Road spring many years ago and conscientiously maintains it with fencing, clean pipes and regular water testing most often for fecal contamination, done several times a year by Vienna’s Jim Gajarski. This year he tested again for arsenic and found the level to be 10.9 – up from 2011’s reading of 10, (not flagged because the tolerable maximum then was 50). I consulted with state toxicologist, Dr. Andrew Smith, in the water quality/environmental protection division of Maine Center of Disease Control. Smith recommended retesting every three months for a year since their cutoff for public water sources is an average of less than 10.5 on several readings, three months apart. If that is not achieved, then the water source is closed until fixed, if it can be.
In the meantime, at his suggestion, the Historical Society has posted these results at the spring and in the Vienna Post Office, with warnings that pregnant women and children may be particularly vulnerable. All users are advised to use it at their own risk. Jim plans to retest the water several times over this next year.
The Kimball Pond spring arsenic levels are not high enough to cause acute poisoning. If regular users of the spring think they have any of the chronic symptoms, they should see their doctor to decide if they might need further testing. Blood levels can be confusing. We live in an area with lots of granite bedrock that contain inorganic type arsenic. That is in contrast to the organic type found in lobsters and other seafood. Arsenic poisoning by inorganic arsenic is a cause of premature dementia (a condition that appears like Alzheimer’s disease). Several times I’ve found an elevated total arsenic level in a patient only to find on further testing that it was the organic type from their diet, and not in their coffee water.
It is a little surprising that this spring has any levels of arsenic. Springs, in contrast to deep wells into the bedrock, usually do not. It may be that the greater amount of snow and rain we’ve had this year caused more water to well up through the granite.. Another possible, though unlikely, explanation, Dr. Smith told me, is that a Civil War soldier might be buried above the spring. Civil War dead were heavily treated with an arsenic preservative before being shipped home for burial.
What can we conclude about all this? First, we should all get our own water tested every 3-5 years either by the state lab (https://www.informe.org/cgi-bin/shopping/cart.pl?catalogPage=pageTwo) or by one of the several private water testing laboratories http://www.informe.org/hetl/). It costs about $20 to test just for arsenic, but for $70, you can test for the full panel of potential contaminants here in Maine.
In the meantime, let’s hope that further tests at Kimball Pond Road site show a decrease in arsenic so that people can continue to drink from the spring, as they have for centuries