Environment Living in Society

Arsenic in the Water

Lake Macbride

Water is life. We take its quality for granted if the source is a public water system.

Consumers rely on drinking water standards developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and enforced by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Where we live municipalities do a good job of compliance with drinking water standards. There are few standards for private wells and the experience is uneven at best in unincorporated areas with public water permits.

In January 2001 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a reference guide for compliance with the new standard for arsenic in public drinking water, reducing the allowable amount from 50 parts per billion to ten.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in many water systems. Neither number in the range seems like much, and at 10 ppb it isn’t. Public water systems have been required to comply with the new standard and if EPA persists in enforcing the new standard, all public water systems should be in compliance eventually.

Not so with private wells where testing and compliance is voluntary. A study published this month in Environmental Science and Technology estimates about 2 million people in the Unites States drink water from private wells with arsenic concentrations exceeding 10 ppb.

The change, initiated during the Bill Clinton administration, took time to develop and more time for communities to implement. The idea was to bring the United States into compliance with the World Health Organization standard for arsenic in drinking water. There are currently communities where the public water system does not meet the new arsenic standard, including one that has been the source of news here in Big Grove. Hopefully they are all working on complying.

There have been at least two deaths caused by cancer among the 85 homes on our public water system. Whether this experience is or isn’t connected to historic arsenic levels is a question that hasn’t been asked. I’m not sure of the merit of asking it, although there are studies with evidence supporting such a connection in larger communities. It is also unclear whether two deaths from anything would be statistically significant in a population of 300. In any case, our public water system has been in compliance with arsenic standards since the new treatment facility was brought on line more than ten years ago.

I doubt many home buyers look at public water or sewer records when considering buying a home even though the data is easily available on line. The proliferation of development in unincorporated areas raises an issue of the quality of management in home owners associations. The arsenic compliance experience demonstrates it is uneven at best.

People seek to escape municipalities. Gasoline remains inexpensive relative to average household income and there are perceived freedoms in living in a small, insular community away from city life. Commuting to a job within an hour’s drive from home is common in Iowa. There is a cost. Things that could be taken for granted in a municipality require attention and potential action in rural Iowa. Who has time for that?

The presence of arsenic in ground water is just one example of the issues of living in an unincorporated area. In a culture of affluence, the quality of water does not often come to the forefront. When it does there is a perception that money and technology will resolve it. That’s mostly true but it requires our engagement, something many people are unwilling to give.

It’s part of sustaining a life in a turbulent world.