In September 2011, I managed a team that produced a multimedia report on the threat of arsenic in Kennebec County’s unregulated drinking water.
Using interpretive database analysis from more than 11,000 wells in 530 Maine municipalities, our report quoted government statistics that found three high-arsenic clusters in Maine: the southern coast, Down East and Greater Augusta.
We then focused on private studies that found that 31 percent of private wells in Greater Augusta contained arsenic above the federal standard, with some 12,293 to 15,561 Kennebec County residents drinking from private wells with toxic levels of arsenic.
Arsenic is linked to increased risk of skin, lung and bladder cancer; developmental problems in children; diabetes; and undesirable effects on the immune system, all of which are exacerbated in cases of poor nutrition.
The problem is naturally occurring from underlying rock. The solution is fairly simple: a water test for $15 to $25 and, if deemed toxic, a filtration system that can cost as little as a few hundred dollars.
But many are still in the dark about the problem. Standards continue to evolve. And Maine does not require any testing of private wells, on which 74 percent of Kennebec County homes rely for potable water, according to U.S. Census data.
The articles, by staff reporter Mechele Cooper, accompanied interpretive maps and tables by news artist Sharon Wood, with video and photography by staff photographer Joe Phelan.
Later studies honed in more closely on the connections between high arsenic exposure and low IQ.
“The work was the basis for a three-part Kennebec Journal series on arsenic contamination in central Maine wells earlier this month that showed as many as 15,000 Kennebec County residents may be in danger of ingesting toxic amounts of arsenic, which has been linked to lung and bladder cancers and learning disabilities in children” (Private well gathering draws Maine experts, Portland Press Herald, Sept. 28, 2011). Later studies included “the first study to actually show a difference in IQ points in the U.S. based on water arsenic levels (Maine study shows possible link between arsenic in drinking water and intelligence, Portland Press Herald, Apr. 2, 2014).
• Part 1 Sept. 4, 2011: High amounts of arsenic in local wells (Story, charts, video) – Broken link
• Part 2 Sept. 5, 2011: Study eyes arsenic-IQ link in children (Story, charts, video) – Broken link
• Part 3 Sept. 6, 2011: Private well? Experts urge testing for toxics (Story) – Broken link