More than three years after Janet McMahan found toxic levels of arsenic in her well water in Ben Hill County, more than half a year after she told us about it at a WWALS water quality testing training, and four months after Erin Brokovich agreed it was a problem, the Georgia Departnment of Health finally has sounded the alarm. They still left out part of the story, though.
The Valdosta Daily Times carried the story in its paper Saturday edition, but apparenlty never put it online. WTXL’s story Friday by Jade Bulecza, UPDATE: South Georgians urged to test private wells due to arsenic risk, quoted Dr. Grow, head of our local eleven-county South Health District:
You cannot taste it or smell it but arsenic could be there in your well water.
“There is obviously areas where there is more than other areas,” said South Health District’s Dr.William Grow. “Those levels of course would therefore be elevated. The only way you’re going to know if you have it in a private well is to get it tested.”
Dr. Grow has known about this problem for some time, but apparently was prohibited from talking about it until now. Curiously, the sudden change of policy came from a different direction, according to WTXL:
Elevated levels of arsenic found in Thomas County is what prompted the testing throughout south Georgia.
Here’s the letter from Jane M. Perry, Director, Chemical Hazards Program, Georgia Department of Public Health to C. Dewayne Tanner, District Environmental Health Director, Southwest Health District, 11 February 2013, that apparently finally set off this alarm.
WALB carried the press release, plus two videos, under the less informative headline, Private wells should be tested,
Here’s the South Health District PR of Wednesday, Residents encouraged to have private wells tested (3/15/13),
The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), Chemical Hazards Program released a report this week that shows elevated levels of naturally occurring arsenic in some private wells in the ten counties of Public Health’s South Health District (District 8-1). Residents that use private wells as a source of drinking water are encouraged to have their water tested to see if the well has an elevated level of arsenic.
“If your drinking water comes from a public or municipal water system, it is routinely tested to ensure safe arsenic levels,” stated Tad Williams, District Environmentalist. “This information is solely for those who use a private well for their water supply.”
Arsenic is an element that occurs naturally in rocks and soil. When underground water flows over rocks and soil that contain arsenic, it slowly dissolves into the water. As a result, some private water wells in Georgia may exceed the federal drinking water standard set for arsenic in public water supplies.
Arsenic in drinking water can enter the body by drinking, cooking in and preparing food with water containing the substance. It is not easily absorbed by the skin and does not “stick” easily to hard surfaces or clothing; therefore, it is considered safe to use the water for cleaning, laundering, brushing teeth and bathing. Possible exposure can be reduced by using bottled water for cooking and drinking.
Exposure to elevated levels of arsenic in drinking water for a short time is not an immediate health concern. When you consume this water for cooking and drinking over a long period time it may pose a health risk. This is why we encourage residents to have all wells tested for toxic chemicals, including arsenic, every three years.
Arsenic does not affect the color, odor or taste of the water; therefore, testing is the only way to determine if the substance is present. Although private wells are not subject to the same regulatory standards as those set for public drinking water supplies, it is recommended that private well owners use these standards to guide their water treatment decisions for health purposes.
“State and local public health officials are working with residents to encourage testing and address any health concerns,” states Williams. “However, since the arsenic is naturally occurring, residents are responsible for the water quality of their well.”
Persons concerned about current arsenic exposure should consult with their health care provider for medical evaluation and testing. To prevent exposure to pets, owners should provide their pets with the same water that conforms to the standards set for humans.
Persons interested in having their well water tested should contact their local county cooperative extension office at 1-800-ASK-UGA1 or a certified private lab. Tests cost approximately $30 plus shipping. Results will show any elevated levels of arsenic and if needed recommend treatment for their water supply.
To view the full report visit www.health.state.ga.us/programs/hazards. For more information call the Chemical Hazards Program at 404-657-6534 or the county environmentalist at your local health department.
What’s missing? Arsenic and other toxic chemicals may not show up in tests for your well water, but you could still be exposed to it in your water. How? According to Janet McMahan, hot water heaters concentrate contaminants, so you need to also test your hot water heater water. Also all these stories talk about naturally-occuring sources of arsenic, but there are man-made sources, too, such as old cattle insect treatments, old treated fence posts, and apparently at least some old chicken processing facilities. Just because many of these processes aren’t used anymore doesn’t mean the arsenic has vanished: it’s a metal; it doesn’t just go away.