Elevated levels of arsenic in the water at Helen Thompson Elementary School has prompted school district officials to ban the use of water for drinking or cooking at the West Gardiner school.

In a letter sent home with students, Patricia Hopkins, district superintendent, said the district received notice Monday from the Maine Drinking Water Program that the level of arsenic in the water at the school exceeded acceptable limits, and as a result the “do not drink the water” order was put in place.

Jon Stonier, the district’s director of operations and maintenance, said Wednesday the results came after the annual water test, which was performed during last week’s school vacation. The results, delivered at midday Friday, showed the school’s well water contained more than the acceptable limit of 10 parts per billion of arsenic. When students returned to school this week, district officials had provided water from an alternate source for drinking and for cooking.

Arsenic is found in drinking water in wells across Maine. The Maine Division of Environmental Health estimates that 1 in 10 wells has water that’s high in arsenic. Prolonged exposure can lead to a higher likelihood of getting cancer, including bladder and lung cancers.

“We covered everything so the students wouldn’t be able to use those sources,” he said. The ban applies only to water that’s ingested. Hand washing is not affected by the ban.

School Principal Kady Gould educated the staff, Stonier said, and district officials talked to the students as they were distributing the water to the classrooms.

“It’s a pretty simple process,” he said. “A lot of students bring their own water anyway.”

On Thursday, the filtering material in two filtration tanks is expected to be changed out. Once that’s done, the water will be tested again; and if the arsenic level falls with an acceptable limit, the “do not drink the water” order will be lifted.

Stonier said replacing the filters won’t take long, and water will have to be run through the system before it can be tested again. That’s expected to take place Monday, he said, and results are expected by the middle of the week,

Hopkins told parents that from this point forward, the water at the elementary school, at 309 Spears Corner Road, will be put on an increased testing cycle, with testing occurring every three months rather than once a year, until the test results stay within recommended limits as required by the state.

Water quality in schools elsewhere in Kennebec County has prompted bans on using water for drinking and cooking.

In October 2016, elevated levels of lead were detected in the water at Benton Elementary School in School Administrative District 49, prompting the school to turn off the water fountains and provide outside water for drinking and cooking. The Kennebec Water District had tested three sites in the school and found levels more than 40 times the limit at which action is needed. The action level for lead in water in schools is 20 parts per billion. Testing showed results at three faucets at 57 parts per billion, 78 parts per billion and 670 parts per billion.

A month later, Clinton Elementary School, also in SAD 49, started replacing fixtures when high lead and copper levels were found in its water. Bottled water was provided for cooking and drinking.

By December, both schools had been taken off bottled water.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

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Twitter: @JLowellKJ