Scientists from state environmental and public health organizations and the University of Maine will present research on water quality issues at a private well symposium next month in Connecticut.

John Peckenham, director of the Maine Water Resources Research Institute at the University of Maine Senator George J. Mitchell Center, will talk about analyzing contaminants in private drinking water wells in Maine.

Peckenham said state and federal governments have standards for drinking water quality, but there are few laws requiring people to test their wells.

The Kennebec Journal reported this month that the number of people in Maine who test their wells has improved since 2004, when only about 26 percent of Maine households reported knowing whether they had tested their wells. That number increased to more than 40 percent in 2009 after the state amped up its efforts to inform people, according to Andy Smith, state toxicologist.

“There are natural occurring pollutants and contaminates in drinking water such as arsenic, radon and uranium that are a health concern,” Peckenham said Tuesday. “There’s also manmade chemicals that end up in drinking water by accidental spills; poor housekeeping of chemicals, for instance storing gasoline for your lawnmower next to a well; and agricultural chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides. Those are all concerns. Over many years, they can cause illnesses.”

Smith said symposiums are a good way to communicate these concerns and increase awareness.

The 2011 Northeast Private Well Symposium is Nov. 14-15 in Southbury, Conn. More than 100 individuals, including academics, government officials, environmental regulators, students, well drillers and other water-quality professionals attended the 2009 conference, which was held in Portland.

Sponsors for this year’s conference include the UMaine Extension and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Topics include the impact of hydrofracturing on groundwater, testing private well water and interpreting the results, public health and regulation of private wells, groundwater quality issues in New England, and arsenic and manganese in drinking water.

“I’ve done a project where I work with school children in rural towns and actually have them bring in water samples from home to analyze the water in classrooms,” Peckenham said. “We look at potential causes for concern and then have children present their information to the community and their parents and encourage them to have a standard drinking water lab test done. We’re building awareness and getting people to test their water and then ask questions about what the results mean.”

Laura Wilson, assistant scientist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said she will emphasize the importance of using social media to raise awareness about threats to drinking-water quality.

“I often receive calls from homeowners who are surprised when a well water test result indicates a problem,” Wilson said. “Many people in Maine simply don’t know about the naturally occurring contaminants that are fairly common here, such as arsenic, radon and uranium.”

Michael Foley, senior geologist at the Maine Geological Survey, has been busy collecting data to be presented at the conference.

He referred to a 2010 landmark U.S. Geological Survey study on arsenic in Maine that showed areas of high concentration of arsenic.

The work was the basis for a three-part Kennebec Journal series on arsenic contamination in central Maine wells earlier this month that showed as many as 15,000 Kennebec County residents may be in danger of ingesting toxic amounts of arsenic, which has been linked to lung and bladder cancers and learning disabilities in children.

“The arsenic study had a large database with more elements that we looked at in the analysis besides arsenic,” Foley said. “What we did is looked at other possible contaminants like manganese, uranium, fluoride and nitrates and nitrites, just to see what the distribution of those were within the state, and (to) get an idea of how some of those could be a problem down the road, and if it looks like there is a need for further study.

“There were some high concentrations of uranium due to the nature of the underlying rock.”

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663

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