When Jessica Penna, a healthy mother of three, started getting sicker and sicker over the past three years, she wondered what could be wrong.
Her medical tests kept coming back negative, yet she still didn’t feel well. She finally decided to have the well water at her home on Farrell Road tested for heavy metals — and sure enough, there was a problem.
The level of arsenic in her water was double the federal standard.
“It was a three-year nightmare,” Ms. Penna said.
Concerned that others might have the same problem with their water without knowing it, Ms. Penna notified the Westport Weston Health District about her test results.
In response, Health Director Mark Cooper has sent letters to homeowners in the area offering to test their water for arsenic.
“We told homeowners it has come to our attention there are elevated arsenic levels in the area and we would like them to consider having their water tested. We’ll collect the water and send it to Hartford for analysis,” Mr. Cooper said.
For now, the testing is limited to a small number of homes, about 12, in the Farrell Road area. “Think of the test area as a small circle with the subject home in the middle,” Mr. Cooper said.
If the test results from those homes show evaluated levels of arsenic, the circle will be broadened for more testing.
Based on the results in Weston so far, Mr. Cooper said, there is no need to panic. “This could just be an isolated hot spot, we don’t know yet,” he said. Anyone with concerns, he said, should have their water tested.
The majority of homes in Weston rely on private wells for water, while a small number do not. Approximately 24 to 30 homes in the Ravenwood Road area are served by community wells, according to Weston Town Administrator Tom Landry. In addition, about 93 customers in Weston are served by the Aquarion Water Company.
While the state requires mandatory testing for public water supplies every three years, there is no mandatory testing required for private wells. So water testing is up to individual homeowners on a voluntary basis.
People often just have their water tested once, when they first buy their homes. But Mr. Cooper recommends having a water test every year.
Not all water tests are equal, though, according to Aqua Environmental Lab, a water testing firm in Newtown. A standard basic drinking water analysis that tests for such items as iron, manganese and sodium, costs $80. It costs $10 more to test for arsenic, and it costs $225 for a test of all inorganic chemicals.
According to federal standards, the acceptable level of arsenic in water is 10 parts per billion. The well water at Ms. Penna’s home had 20 parts per billion, double the acceptable limit.
Mr. Cooper said he hopes homeowners who have been notified by the health district about arsenic will share the results of their water tests. So far he hasn’t heard from anyone other than Ms. Penna.
“I suspect homeowners are having their wells tested by private labs. While they don’t have to share their results with the district, it would be helpful if they did so we can track things,” Mr. Cooper said.
What is arsenic?
Arsenic is an odorless and tasteless semi-metal element that occurs naturally in rocks and soil, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
It can enter the water supply from natural deposits in the earth or from industrial and agricultural pollution. It is widely believed that naturally occurring arsenic dissolves out of certain rock formations when ground water levels drop significantly.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that high arsenic levels in private wells can also come from certain arsenic-containing fertilizers. Arsenic can also be found in measurable amounts in seafood, grains and vegetables.
There are two types of arsenic compounds: organic and inorganic. Atoms of arsenic that bond with carbon are referred to as organic arsenic.
Inorganic arsenic refers to arsenic that is combined with elements other than carbon. Inorganic arsenic is the form linked to health problems.
Brian Toal, a toxicologist and supervisor of the Environmental and Occupational Health Assessment Program in the Connecticut Department of Public Health, said he has come across high arsenic levels in many parts of the state. “It’s sporadic. We’ve seen high arsenic levels in areas like Woodstock and Somers. It’s in bedrock, so we look at the bedrock geology. If there’s a problem, we’ll speak with the health director about taking some samples and circling out to see if it is limited,” he said.
Elevated levels of arsenic in water can cause health problems. According to the EPA, long-term ingestion of arsenic can increase the risk of skin cancer and cancer of the lungs, bladder, kidney, liver, and prostate. Very high levels of arsenic can also result in death.
Some of the symptoms associated with high levels of arsenic, according to the EPA, are:
• Numbness, tingling, or pins and needles in the feet and hands with associated weakness.
• Partial paralysis.
• Stomach pain or diarrhea.
• Patchy areas of darkened skin, redness, and swelling.
• Patchy areas of thickened outer skin layer.
• Appearance of small “corns” or “warts” on the palms, soles of the feet, or body.
Sensitivity is also an issue when it comes to arsenic. Mr. Cooper said some people who are exposed to high levels of arsenic have no problems, while others who are exposed to low limits can suffer ill effects.
“It’s all up to the individual person. For most people, having a little arsenic in their water is no problem,” Mr. Cooper said. “The important thing is how people feel. Do they feel healthy?”
In addition to the arsenic level in water, people who might be sensitive to arsenic should also look at their diet to see if they are ingesting foods such as shellfish that can be high in arsenic, Mr. Cooper said.
Ms. Penna said she is having various medical tests done to see if arsenic is the reason for her health issues.
What to do?
Anyone who notices symptoms associated with arsenic should have their water specifically tested for it.
Heating or boiling water will not remove arsenic. Because some of the water evaporates during the boiling process, the arsenic concentrations can actually increase as the water is boiled. Chlorine (bleach) disinfection will not remove arsenic either, according to the EPA.
However, special filtration systems can very effectively remove arsenic, Mr. Cooper said. Ms. Penna said she is installing a filtration system at her home to deal with elevated arsenic levels.
This story was edited to correct a statement that there is no public water supply in Weston. A small number of homes are, in fact, served by a public water supply.