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After Weston reports: State urges testing wells for arsenic, uranium

WellThe Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH) is making a statewide recommendation in response to recent reports about high levels of arsenic found in well water in Weston.

In a press release issued Monday, March 18, the DPH recommends that all private well owners in the state have their water tested for arsenic and uranium.

“These naturally occurring metals are found in groundwater in sporadic locations across the state and can lead to adverse health effects,” according to the release.

DPH epidemiologist Brian Toal said in the release, “Recent well testing in various towns around Connecticut has found arsenic and uranium. While the distribution of contaminated wells has been sporadic, there have been enough findings statewide to prompt recommended testing for both metals in all Connecticut towns.”

In a phone interview with The Forum, Mr. Toal confirmed that Weston was one of the “various towns” in the state where well water had high levels of arsenic.

He said there was also a cluster of wells with high arsenic levels in Somers, a small town near the Massachusetts border, more than 70 miles away from Weston.

“Because of the reports in Weston and Somers, it got me thinking that now is the time to tell everyone to get their wells tested. We don’t know if any part of the state is safe or at risk, so we’re making a blanket recommendation for testing for arsenic and uranium,” Mr. Toal said.

While the state requires testing of public water supplies every three years, there is no mandatory testing for private wells. Water testing is up to individual homeowners on a voluntary basis.

Mr. Toal said the only way to know if arsenic or uranium are present in a private well is to have the water tested. Since tests for arsenic and uranium are not usually part of a “standard well analysis,” homeowners will need to specifically ask labs to analyze for these metals.

The DPH has a list of approved environmental water testing labs on its website, ct.gov/dph. Under “Latest News” a link to the list can be found at the bottom of “DPH Recommends Arsenic and Uranium Testing for Private Wells.”

Mr. Toal said the cost for testing for both metals can range between $65 and $100.

Arsenic and uranium

Arsenic and uranium are metals that occur naturally in bedrock all over the world, according to the DPH.

When groundwater comes in contact with the bedrock, the metals may leach out and contaminate private wells.

The DPH warns that both metals are considered toxic and can have a variety of adverse health effects if people are exposed at high enough levels and for a long period of time.

Arsenic is classified as a human cancer-causing agent, which has been associated with increased risk of lung, bladder and skin cancers.

The type of uranium found in groundwater is not considered a radioactive risk and is therefore not a major cancer concern, according to Mr. Toal.

However, the toxicity of the uranium metal has been associated with adverse effects on kidney function. “It is important to point out the health risks [from arsenic and uranium] are usually long-term risks and chronic, and may not be noticed for years,” Mr. Toal said.

According to federal standards, the acceptable level of arsenic in water is 10 parts per billion.

In Weston, where a majority of residents rely on private wells for water, a number of wells have tested positive for elevated levels of arsenic, according to Mark Cooper, health director for the Westport Weston Health District.

In the past few weeks, he said, more than 100 Weston homeowners have shared their well reports with the district.

“About 50% of the reports are above the recommended limit for arsenic,” Mr. Cooper said.

The arsenic levels vary from well to well. Some are significantly above the recommended limit, while others are just slightly above, he said.

The district tested several homes in Weston last month after Farrell Road resident Jessica Penna brought to Mr. Cooper’s attention that her well water had tested high for arsenic — 20 parts per billion, double the acceptable limit.

After a story in The Forum reported Ms. Penna’s results, a number of other Weston homeowners had their wells tested and shared their information with the health district, Mr. Cooper said.

The district is currently compiling data from those well reports, and Mr. Cooper said he is preparing a map that will show where high levels of arsenic have been reported in Weston. “It’s a little too soon to say if one area of town is more affected than another; we’re not sure yet,” he said.

Mr. Cooper plans to present the map and address concerns about arsenic at a public discussion and presentation on Thursday, April 11, at 7 p.m. in the Community Room at the Weston Public Library. Mr. Toal will also be on hand to discuss arsenic in the state.

Relief

Ms. Penna said she is relieved to know other Weston homeowners are getting their water tested for arsenic.

The mother of three young children said she started developing health problems in the past three years but had no idea what was causing them.

It wasn’t until she had her water tested recently for heavy metals that she learned it had a high level of arsenic. “It was a three-year nightmare,” she said.

Uncertain if the arsenic was contributing to her health problems, she had a hair analysis done to determine if arsenic was in her system. “The test was positive and showed I did have arsenic poisoning in my hair,” Ms. Penna said.

To treat the arsenic in her home, she had a full arsenic filtration system installed to remove arsenic from the home’s water supply. She also had a reverse osmosis system put on her kitchen sink; it can remove 40 different contaminants from drinking water, including uranium.

For her personal well-being, Ms. Penna is under a doctor’s care and is undergoing chelation treatment to help flush arsenic from her body. She is also on an organic paleo diet and does not eat sugar or grains, which she said helps her body get rid of fat where arsenic is stored. “I’ve already noticed an improvement. I’m feeling much better now,” Ms. Penna said.

She called her health problems a “modern mystery,” because it wasn’t readily apparent that a contaminant in her water was to blame and it took an investigation on her part to uncover it.

“Once I found out my water had a high level of arsenic, I was concerned others might be having the same problem with their water without knowing it,” she said.

Symptoms and sources

Arsenic is difficult to detect because it is odorless and colorless.

Some of the symptoms associated with high levels of arsenic are headaches, confusion, numbness and tingling, diarrhea, vomiting, blood in the urine, cramping muscles, hair loss, stomach pain, paralysis, and convulsions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

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 levels 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,” he said. “The important thing is how people feel. Do they feel healthy?”

Arsenic is also found in some foods. So 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 such foods as shellfish, leafy greens and rice, which can be high in arsenic, Mr. Cooper said.

When it comes to treating arsenic in the home, heating or boiling water will not remove it.

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. Special filtration systems can effectively remove arsenic.

The DPH recommends that wells be tested at the time of sale of a home and also when a new well is drilled. Wells should then be tested every five years because levels of arsenic and uranium can fluctuate.

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