The state is interested in learning whether well water users understand it is their responsibility to test their water, and how to encourage them to do so.
Michael Paul, Community Engagement coordinator with the Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program and the Audrey and Theodore Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in Hanover, held a focus group in Londonderry last week to discuss what people who get their water from private wells should know. He said it is the homeowner’s responsibility to test their water to ensure it is safe, and to treat it if it contains unsafe levels of contaminants, including arsenic, which is prevalent in southern New Hampshire.
According to a U.S. Geological Survey model, Londonderry is a town with high arsenic levels in its well water, Paul said.
The meeting in Londonderry focused on what questions to ask well users in a survey that will be mailed to about 4,000 New Hampshire residents.
Paul said Londonderry was chosen as one of the four focus group locations because it has one of the highest amount of well water users in the state.
“Londonderry was chosen because it has a relatively high number of private wells, is a town with high arsenic levels according to a U.S. Geological Survey model and it has a relatively high percentage of children relative to other New Hampshire towns,” Paul said.
Paul said the ultimate goal of the project is to improve public health.
“There were a couple of people that mentioned previous studies that were done that showed that there is a higher than average arsenic content in Londonderry,” said Town Manager Kevin Smith, who attended the focus group. “That being said, levels aren’t so high as to be an immediate threat to public health.”
Resident Mike Speltz explained the Dartmouth staff “have been tasked to find a reliable way to assess New Hampshire’s residents, their understanding of well water and how to maintain it as far as having it tested, knowing how frequently to test it and what it should be tested for, generally trying to assess their knowledge of how to take care of a well. They are trying to develop a survey and they want to make sure they are asking the right questions.
“There were a few good things that came out of it,” he said of the meeting. “The building department will probably be making a little more information on wells available.
“Knowing that Londonderry has more wells per capita than anywhere else in the state, it makes it more important that we redouble our efforts in protecting our landscape,” Speltz said. “We have hot spots of arsenic in Londonderry, but so do other towns. It is a common contaminant in Southern New Hampshire.”
Paul said the focus group is a way “to test the concepts and assumptions forming the basis of our survey questions. Are there demographic factors that might be expected to correspond with treatment and testing rates? Are we capturing the most important thoughts, ideas, and experiences residents have related to arsenic awareness, testing, and treatment? Are our survey questions clear and the possible answer choices appropriate? What steps can we take to ensure that people respond to our survey? We see the focus groups as a key step in developing a successful survey.
“The results will be used to increase public awareness about arsenic and other potential drinking water contaminants and their potential health effects, promote water testing, revise current public health messages about water testing and treatment, encourage appropriate protective responses for households that receive unhealthy water test results, and educate local health officials and health care providers in high-risk areas about their messages to citizens and patients,” Paul explained.
Paul said a contract exists with the State Department of Environmental Services (DES) to conduct a survey of New Hampshire residents who obtain water from a well.
“With the survey data we will estimate statewide rates of well water testing and treatment for arsenic; assess the importance of a variety of factors influencing the rate of water testing and treatment; evaluate the effectiveness of the DES flier in encouraging water testing; identify subpopulations that are less likely to test and treat their water; determine the types and maintenance of water treatment systems being used; estimate statewide exposure to well water arsenic and associated health risks and design and test intervention strategies to overcome identified barriers to testing and treatment.
“The important thing to get across is that people who have wells are responsible for testing their water,” Paul said. “Some people test when they buy the house and it’s never tested again until they sell, but it is very important for people to test frequently so they know what is in the water they are drinking and using.”
According to a DES fact sheet on arsenic in well water, wells drilled into New Hampshire’s bedrock fractures have about a one in five probability of containing naturally occurring arsenic above 10 parts per billion. Arsenic in water has no color or odor, even at elevated levels; the only way to determine the arsenic level in well water is by testing.
Detailed information about arsenic in well water, including how to obtain well testing kits for arsenic, is available on the DES website at http://des.nh.gov/organization/divisions/water/dwgb/capacity/arsenic.htm.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate private wells or require states to do so.