Public Perception Impedes Prevention of Arsenic Exposure

Science Center Objects

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.

New England Water Science Center sealed cap installation

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.

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 report 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 studies 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 research was funded by the USGS Ecosystems Mission Area’s Environmental Health Program (Contaminant Biology and Toxic Substances Hydrology) and the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.


Papers Contained in "Special Section: Arsenic in Private Well Waters of the Northeastern United States and Atlantic Canada" edited by Yan Zheng and Joseph D. Ayotte

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.

Dummer, T.J.B., Yu, Z.M., Nauta, L., Murimboh, J.D., and Parker, L., 2015, Geostatistical modelling of arsenic in drinking water wells and related toenail arsenic concentrations across Nova Scotia, Canada: Science of The Total Environment, v. 505, p. 1248–1258, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.02.055.

Chappells, H., Campbell, N., Drage, J., Fernandez, C.V., Parker, L., and Dummer, T.J.B., 2015, Understanding the translation of scientific knowledge about arsenic risk exposure among private well water users in Nova Scotia: Science of The Total Environment, v. 505, p. 1259–1273, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2013.12.108.

Flanagan, S.V., Marvinney, R.G., and Zheng, Y., 2015, Influences on domestic well water testing behavior in a Central Maine area with frequent groundwater arsenic occurrence: Science of The Total Environment, v. 505, p. 1274–1281, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.05.017.

Flanagan, S.V., Marvinney, R.G., Johnston, R.A., Yang, Q., and Zheng, Y., 2015, Dissemination of well water arsenic results to homeowners in Central Maine--Influences on mitigation behavior and continued risks for exposure: Science of The Total Environment, v. 505, p. 1282–1290, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.03.079.

Yang, Q., Culbertson, C.W., Nielsen, M.G., Schalk, C.W., Johnson, C.D., Marvinney, R.G., Stute, M., and Zheng, Y., 2015, Flow and sorption controls of groundwater arsenic in individual boreholes from bedrock aquifers in Central Maine, USA: Science of The Total Environment, v. 505, p. 1291–1307, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.04.089.

O'Shea, B., Stransky, M., Leitheiser, S., Brock, P., Marvinney, R.G., and Zheng, Y., 2015, Heterogeneous arsenic enrichment in meta-sedimentary rocks in Central Maine, United States: Science of The Total Environment, v. 505, p. 1308–1319, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.05.032.

Ryan, P.C., West, D.P., Hattori, K., Studwell, S., Allen, D.N., and Kim, J., 2015, The influence of metamorphic grade on arsenic in metasedimentary bedrock aquifers—A case study from Western New England, USA: Science of The Total Environment, v. 505, p. 1320–1330, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.05.021.

Mango, H., and Ryan, P., 2015, Source of arsenic-bearing pyrite in southwestern Vermont, USA--Sulfur isotope evidence: Science of The Total Environment, v. 505, p. 1331–1339, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.03.072.

Blake, J.M., and Peters, S.C., 2015, The occurrence and dominant controls on arsenic in the Newark and Gettysburg basins: Science of The Total Environment, v. 505, p. 1340–1349, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.02.013.

Mumford, A.C., Barringer, J.L., Reilly, P.A., Eberl, D.D., Blum, A.E., and Young, L.Y., 2015, Biogeochemical environments of streambed-sediment pore waters with and without arsenic enrichment in a sedimentary rock terrain, New Jersey Piedmont, USA: Science of The Total Environment, v. 505, p. 1350–1360, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.07.104.

Spayd, S.E., Robson, M.G., and Buckley, B.T., 2015, Whole-House arsenic water treatment provided more effective arsenic exposure reduction than point-of-use water treatment at New Jersey homes with arsenic in well water Science of The Total Environment, v. 505, p. 1361–1369, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.06.026.

Ayotte, J.D., Belaval, M., Olson, S.A., Burow, K.R., Flanagan, S.M., Hinkle, S.R., and Lindsey, B.D., 2015, Factors affecting temporal variability of arsenic in groundwater used for drinking water supply in the United States: Science of The Total Environment, v. 505, p. 1370–1379, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.02.057.