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Public Perception Impedes Prevention of Arsenic Exposure

Photo showing the installation of a sealed domestic well cap and monitoring instruments
Photo showing the installation of a sealed domestic well cap and instruments to continuously monitor water level and physiochemical parameters (pH, dissolved oxygen, specific conductance, and temperature). The USGS monitors the quality of groundwater across the country. The USGS has developed maps that show where and to what extent arsenic occurs in groundwater across the country. Photo credit: Joseph D. Ayotte, USGS.

One of the biggest challenges in preventing arsenic exposure from drinking water may be public perception, according to a recent special section of Science of the Total Environment. In this special section of 13 papers report on new understanding of arsenic hydrogeochemistry, performance of household well water treatment systems, and testing and treatment behaviors of well users in several states of the northeastern region of the United States and Nova Scotia, Canada.

It is estimated that there are over 13 million private wells in the United States, and that about 15 percent of the U.S. population, or over 43 million people, rely on private wells for their drinking water. Arsenic is present in groundwater used for drinking water in several regions of the United States, including the northeastern United States and the adjoining Atlantic Canadian provinces. For example, the USGS National Water-Quality Assessment Program determined that more than 10 percent of wells in crystalline-bedrock aquifers in New England contain concentrations of arsenic greater than 10 micrograms per liter, the maximum contaminant level of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. According to a National Research Council reportNational Research Council, 2014, Critical Aspects of EPA's IRIS Assessment of Inorganic Arsenic: Interim Report: Washington, DC, The National Academies Press, 127 p., ISBN:978-0-309-29706-6. on assessments of inorganic arsenic toxicity, even low to moderate (10 to 100 micrograms per liter) levels of arsenic, commonly detected in many private wells, is a public health concern.

Although the scientific understanding of arsenic, its behavior, and how to detect it has steadily advanced, there has not been much research done on what actions, if any, well users have or are taking to reduce their risk of exposure. Because arsenic in water is tasteless and odorless, it is not possible for consumers to recognize arsenic without testing. According to studiesZheng, Y., and Ayotte, J.D., 2015, At the crossroads--Hazard assessment and reduction of health risks from arsenic in private well waters of the northeastern United States and Atlantic Canada: Science of The Total Environment, v. 505, p. 1237-1247, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.10.089. completed in Nova Scotia and Maine, testing for arsenic in private wells is often not done because of a low perceived risk for arsenic exposure, inconvenience, and cost of testing. As part of these studies, scientists concluded that the public perception that arsenic is not a health concern prevents actions that could reduce exposure such as water treatment for arsenic removal or development of alternative water sources for private wells. Scientists at the USGS are hoping to evaluate alternative methods of well construction in shallow aquifers in the northeastern United States that could reduce exposure and the need for arsenic treatment systems.

This study was supported by the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Reference

Zheng, Y., and Ayotte, J.D., 2015, At the crossroads—Hazard assessment and reduction of health risks from arsenic in private well waters of the northeastern United States and Atlantic Canada: Science of The Total Environment, v. 505, p. 1237–1247, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.10.089.

Special section: Arsenic in private well waters of the northeastern United States and Atlantic Canada: Science of The Total Environment, v. 505.

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