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The Merrimack Valley of New Hampshire has some of the nation's highest levels of arsenic in their wells, which are used for drinking water. According to environmental experts at a seminar at the University of New Hampshire's Durham the health of residents in the area could be at risk.
A 2003 federal study showed more public and private wells in southeast New Hampshire are exposed to potentially harmful drinking water than much of New England. And as public water suppliers make improvements to meet dramatically more stringent federal standards for arsenic, officials fear those with private wells will be left out of the loop.
"Arsenic has no taste, color or odor and, at the moment, there appears to be many different (health) risks associated with it," said Bernard Lucey, a senior engineer with New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services. "For private wells, there is no minimum quantity or quality for arsenic."
The same prospect nationwide prompted the federal government to lower the acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water to 10 parts per billion from 50 ppb. Water utilities nationwide must comply by the start of 2006.
The Granite State appears to have a particular problem partly because so many wells, public and private, are drilled into a vein of bedrock that is laced with naturally occurring deposits of arsenic.
Although it's difficult to see how serious the problem could be, since old federal drinking water standard for arsenic was set in the 1940s and it's the equivalent of one tablespoon mixed into an Olympic-sized swimming pool of water. The new standard reduces that by 80 percent, to about a half-teaspoon in that swimming pool, and now 130 public drinking water supplies in New Hampshire can't meet that standard, according to a study by the state's Department of Environmental Services.
Studies in Third World countries like Bangladesh have found elevated cancer rates and serious skin diseases in residents whose drinking water reaches 250 ppb of arsenic. And, it turns out; some private wells in New Hampshire aren't far from Bangladesh in that regard.
Of the 130 public wells in New Hampshire that currently fail to meet the new federal arsenic levels, the vast majorities have between 50 ppb and 10 ppb. That includes wells serving private residential communities, government complexes and schools.
Recent research has found that arsenic, while a vital element in a person's diet at trace levels, dangerously disrupts delicate body chemistry as those levels go up. When the federal government was mulling the stricter arsenic standards, Clean Water Action, a national nonprofit group that lobbies for safe drinking water programs, wanted an even more stringent standard.
Edmund Coletta a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection said the state generally does not have an arsenic problem "But we don't regulate the private wells," he said. "Those are left up to local cities and town boards of health."
Towns in New Hampshire, such as Salem and Hollis, have taken steps to curb arsenic in private wells by requiring arsenic tests in their building codes. Salem's municipal water supply relies on Arlington Pond and Canobie Lake, which don't have an arsenic problem, according to Rodney Bartlett, Salem public works director. That still leaves a lot of homeowners off the public systems who could be getting bad water, and that's what the state wants to correct
A consortium of New Hampshire scientists will study the issue, and one person involved in the work says arsenic is gaining widespread interest.