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10/3/2011 Health Care News: It's elemental: Many private wells across U.S. are contaminated with arsenic and other elements

“An estimated 15 million U.S. households regularly depend on private, unregulated and unmonitored water wells.”10/3/2011 Health Care News: It’s elemental: Many private wells across U.S. are contaminated with arsenic and other elements In Nebraska, along the Platte River, it’s uranium. In Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, it’s arsenic. In California, boron. And in the Texas Panhandle, lithium. Throughout the nation, metals and other elements are tainting private drinking water wells at concentrations that pose a health concern. For one element – manganese – contamination is so widespread that water wells with excessive levels are found in all but just a few states. Arsenic, too, is a national problem, scattered in every region.

In the first national effort to monitor well water for two dozen trace elements, geologists have discovered that 13 percent of untreated drinking water contains at least one element at a concentration that exceeds federal health regulations or guidelines. That rate far outpaces other contaminants, including industrial chemicals and pesticides. The most troubling finding involves the widespread contamination of private wells, which are unmonitored and unregulated.

By Marla Cone, Editor in Chief: In Nebraska, along the Platte River, it’s uranium. In Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, it’s arsenic. In California, boron. And in the Texas Panhandle, lithium.

Throughout the nation, metals and other elements are tainting private drinking water wells at concentrations that pose a health concern.

For one element – manganese – contamination is so widespread that water wells with excessive levels are found in all but just a few states. Arsenic, too, is a national problem, scattered in every region.

In the first national effort to monitor wells for two dozen trace elements, geologists have discovered that 13 percent of untreated drinking water contains at least one element at a concentration that exceeds federal health regulations or guidelines. That rate far outpaces other contaminants in well water, including industrial chemicals and pesticides.

For public wells, the discovery is less of a concern, since water suppliers regularly test for contaminants and remove them to comply with federal standards. The most troubling finding involves the widespread contamination of private wells, which are unmonitored and unregulated.

“It was a bit surprising how many of these trace elements had exceedances of human health benchmarks, especially compared to other contaminants we are often concerned about,” said Joseph Ayotte, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, which conducted the research. “The findings certainly underscore the message we hear from the public health agencies, that everyone should test their wells for a suite of trace elements.”

Long abandoned gold processing vats leave a legacy of cyanide and arsenic contamination near Genola, Utah.

An estimated 15 million U.S. households – about 60 million people – regularly depend on private water wells, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most private well owners occasionally test for bacteria, but rarely, if ever, test for anything else.

“The findings certainly underscore the message we hear from the public health agencies, that everyone should test their wells for a suite of trace elements.” – Joseph Aotte, USGS

Nearly half of all drinking water in the country comes from ground water, and usage is increasing worldwide as freshwater supplies from rivers are running low and encumbered by bitter feuds.

“Ground water is very important. It’s the invisible link to our water supply that people don’t really think about,” said David Wunsch, director of science and technology at the National Ground Water Assn. “It’s underground – out of sight, out of mind – and that’s exactly why we’ve come across the pollution problems we have.”

The geologists tested more than 5,000 wells in 40 aquifers for 23 elements – all metals and metal-like substances – plus radon.

Drier regions of the country, mostly in the West, had more wells with excessive trace elements than humid regions, and urban areas had more than agricultural areas.

“Wells with human health benchmark exceedances were widespread across the United States; they occurred in all aquifer groups and in both humid and dry regions,” the report says.

People usually test their well water only when it tastes funny or smells bad, says one scientist.

Arsenic, uranium and manganese most frequently exceeded either health standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency or health-based guidelines developed by the USGS and the EPA. Arsenic, radon and chromium are carcinogens, uranium and cadmium can damage kidneys and manganese might have neurological effects. Boron might lead to smaller fetuses and damage to male reproductive organs, while barium can cause high blood pressure and lithium can suppress the thyroid.

“Trace elements are a widespread chronic health problem,” Wunsch said. “It’s not like something that’s really dramatic where people will get sick right away, but the public needs to be informed more. Some of the things listed here – arsenic, barium, lead, cadmium, for example – can be toxic in small quantities.”

Wunsch said people usually test their well water only when it tastes funny or smells bad. “Private well water is not regulated like the public water supply is. So it’s up to the homeowner to take care of it himself,” he said.

Drier regions of the country, mostly in the West, had more wells with excessive trace elements than humid regions, and urban areas had more than agricultural areas.Mary McClintock has been drinking well water since she bought her home in Conway, Mass., 27 years ago. “I remember having the well tested before buying the house, and perhaps at one other time early on,” she said.

McClintock said she has no health concerns about her water, although a friend who lives in Leverett 15 miles away discovered his well water had excessive arsenic after he tested it at the recommendation of state officials. He and his family now drink bottled water.

“Why haven’t I tested my well? No particular reason except assuming it is a deep well and not in danger of contamination,” she said.

The USGS maps show that arsenic is mostly a problem in parts of New England east of where McClintock lives. But geologists say that it’s a misconception to believe that deeper wells are safer. Elements can be found at any depth, and some, like arsenic, are even worse in deeper wells.

“We actually anticipate that deeper wells should have more arsenic than shallow ones based on the geochemistry of mobilization of arsenic. But high concentrations can occur at any depth if the geochemical conditions are right,” Ayotte said. Sand and gravel soils are most conducive to contamination, which also depends on factors such as pH and climate.

Overall, 19 percent of the 5,183 untreated public, private and monitoring wells exceeded the health-based levels. When private drinking water wells were separated from the pack, 13 percent exceeded the health standards or guidelines.

But that national average is a bit deceptive, since some regions have a far greater frequency of problems. Hot spots for elements are congregated in clusters.

Geologists say it’s a misconception to believe that deeper wells are safer. Elements can be found at any depth, and some, like arsenic, are even worse in deeper wells.Eastern New England, for example, has a cluster of high arsenic concentrations. “What we did not know was how to connect the dots in New England states,” Ayotte said. “It became apparent [in the new study] that the high arsenic values formed a contiguous belt between three states, Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.”

They also found that manganese is “widespread but more prevalent in the East. It’s similar with arsenic, you can find it almost anywhere at high levels,” said Ayotte, lead author of the USGS study, also authored by Jo Ann Gronberg and Lori Apodaca.

Other arsenic hot spots include the Sacramento and Los Angeles regions of California, western Nevada, the Phoenix area, the Texas Panhandle and New Mexico along the Rio Grande, according to the new study’s maps. Others are found in Illinois, Ohio, south Florida and New Jersey.

“Arsenic is definitely a national problem with a local flavor,” Ayotte said.

Officials recommend that homeowners have their wells tested not just for bacteria, but for trace elements and other contaminants.

Most elements found in ground water are derived from natural sources, since they are part of the Earth’s crust. But even though the source is overwhelmingly natural, “the conditions that make it go into the water are not always natural,” Ayotte said. Elements can contaminate water from farms, urban runoff, mining and factories, either directly or by altering aquifer conditions to mobilize them in rocks and soil.

The EPA has set enforceable drinking water standards for 11 trace elements, what Wunsch called “the really nasty ones.” But others, including manganese, have only USGS guidelines based on a small number of health studies.

Private wells are not subject to federal standards because there are tens of millions of them, which would make it unenforceable.

Instead, EPA officials said in response to the new findings that people should test their private wells “if they suspect possible contamination.” The new USGS maps are useful for well owners who want to check the hot spots.

Testing a well for arsenic costs as little as $15 to $30, while treatment systems for removing arsenic cost $1,200 to $3,000, according to the Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection.

The report notes that elements “far outpace” other pollutants, many of which get far more public attention. The 19 percent compares with 7 percent for nitrates and 1 to 2 percent for pesticides and volatile organic compounds, based on previous USGS research.

“We often get more upset about these anthropogenic contaminants but we have to remember that these naturally occurring elements are oftentimes more of a widespread problem,” Ayotte said. “Not to diminish the importance of the others, but trace elements are also hugely important and arguably more so.”

6/15/2011 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: US EPA Administrator Testimony Before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 6/15/2011 US EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Testimony Before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works CONTACT: EPA Press Office press@epa.gov 202-564-6794 Madam Chairman, thank you for inviting me to testify about EPA’s ongoing efforts to protect our health by reducing the air pollution that affects millions of Americans. I know this subject very personally because my son is one of the more than 25 million Americans battling asthma. Let me begin my testimony with a matter of fact: pollution, such as mercury and particulate matter, shortens and reduces the quality of Americans’ lives and puts at risk the health and development of future generations. We know mercury is a toxin that causes neurological damage to adults, children and developing fetuses. We know mercury causes neurological damage, including lost IQ point in children. And we know particulate matter can lead to respiratory disease, decreased lung function and even pre-mature death. These pollutants – and others including arsenic, chromium and acid gases –come from power plants. These are simple facts that should not be up for debate.

However, Madam Chairman, while Americans across the country suffer from this pollution, special interests who are trying to gut long-standing public health protections are now going so far as to claim that these pollutants aren’t even harmful. These myths are being perpetrated by some of the same lobbyists who have in the past testified before Congress about the importance of reducing mercury and particulate matter. Now on behalf of their clients, they’re saying the exact opposite.

The good news is that to address this pollution problem, in 1970 Congress passed the Clean Air Act – which was signed into law by a Republican President, and then strengthened in 1990 under another Republican Administration.

Last year alone, the Clean Air Act is estimated to have saved 160,000 lives and prevented more than 100,000 hospital visits. Simply put, protecting public health and the environment should not be – and historically has not been – a partisan issue.

Despite all the distractions, let me assure you that EPA will continue to base all of our public health protections on two key principles: the law and the best science. Allow me to focus on two current activities.

On March 16, after 20 years in the making, EPA proposed the first ever national standards for mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants. While many power plants already comply, the standards will level the playing field by requiring additional power plants to install widely-available, proven pollution control technologies.

Deployment of these technologies will prevent an estimated:

17,000 premature deaths
11,000 heart attacks
120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms
11,000 cases of acute bronchitis among children
12,000 emergency room visits and hospital admissions
850,000 days of work missed due to illness

This proposed rule, which is going through a public comment process, is the product of significant outreach to industry and other stakeholders.

As we work at EPA to cut down on mercury and other toxins from power plants, we’re also trying to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide through the “Clean Air Transport Rule” we proposed last year.

This rule requires 31 states and the District of Columbia to reduce their emissions of these two pollutants – which contribute to ozone and fine particle pollution across state lines – thereby significantly improving air quality in cities across the U.S. Utilities can achieve these reductions by investing in widely-available technology.

Once finalized, this rule will result in more than $120 billion in health benefits each year. EPA estimates this rule will protect public health by avoiding:

14,000 to 36,000 premature death

· 21,000 cases of acute bronchitis

· 23,000 nonfatal heart attacks

240,000 cases of aggravated asthma
440,000 cases of upper and lower respiratory symptoms
26,000 hospital and emergency room visits

· 1.9 million days of work or school missed due to illness

These numbers represent a major improvement in the quality of life for literally millions of people throughout the country – especially working families, children and older Americans.

While some argue that public health protections are too costly, history has repeatedly shown that we can clean up pollution, create jobs and grow our economy all at the same time.

Over the 40 years since the Clean Air Act was passed, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product grew more than 200 percent. In fact, some economic analysis suggests that the economy is billions of dollars larger today than it would have been without the Act.

Simply put, the Clean Air Act saves lives and strengthens the American workforce. As a result, the economic value of clean air far exceeds the costs. Expressed in dollar terms, the benefits of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 alone are projected to reach approximately $2 trillion in 2020, with an estimated cost of $65 billion in that same year – a benefit to cost ratio of more than 30 to 1.

With legislation pending in Congress to weaken and gut this proven public health protection law, I urge this committee to stand up for the hundreds of millions of Americans who are directly or indirectly affected by air pollution.

I look forward to your questions.

R203

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5/31/2011 NRDC Would You Like Cancer-causing or Brain-poisoning Pollution With That Electricity?

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) Staff Blog by Pete Altman: Hundreds of people have said no to toxic pollution from power plants near them by attending U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hearings. The last one is today in Atlanta — if you can’t make it, support the EPA’s proposals to make power companies cut the amount of mercury, arsenic, chromium, acid gases & other nasty stuff they release into the air by TAKING ACTION: http://b/ Next time you flip on the light switch, how would you respond if a little voice asked you “Thanks for your order. Would you like cancer with your electricity? How about some brain-poison?” Weird question, right? Unfortunately, power companies are one of the biggest toxic polluters in the US, dumping millions of pounds of cancer-causing, brain-poisoning toxins like arsenic and mercury into the air each year. The toxins are found in the coal that is burned to supply about ½ of our nation’s electricity.

This week, hundreds of people have shown up to hearings in Philadelphia and Chicago organized by the US Environmental Protection Agency to say “no thanks” to toxic pollution from power plants, and support the EPA’s proposals to make power companies reduce the amount of mercury, arsenic, chromium, acid gases and other nasty stuff they release into the air.

(To let the EPA know you support reducing toxic pollution from power plants, take action here.)

As the Associated Press explained,

Several hundred people, from environmentalists and physicians to mothers and fishermen, testified before a panel of federal environmental officials on Tuesday to urge the passage of proposed new standards to limit the amount of air pollution that coal-fired power plants can release into the atmosphere.”

One those physicians was Dr. Kevin Osterhoudt, medical director of the poison control center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who said

Young children are uniquely vulnerable to the toxic effects of environmental poisons such as mercury and arsenic. These compounds are especially dangerous to the developing brain and nervous system.

Some of the speakers pulled no punches. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported,

Rabbi Daniel Swartz leaned toward the microphone at Tuesday’s hearing on proposed federal rules to limit mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

By allowing emissions to continue, “we have, in effect, subsidized the poisoning of fetuses and children,” the Scranton rabbi said.

In Chicago, a similar scene unfolded, as the Chicago Tribune reported, with supporters of limiting toxic air pollution coming out in force, as noted by Chicago radio station WBEZ:

Midwesterners who testified at a public hearing in Chicago Tuesday afternoon were overwhelmingly in favor of the proposed EPA plan.”

One of those speaking in Chicago was NRDC’s Shannon Fisk, who focused on the critical need for EPA to act swiftly to reduce toxic pollution, saying,

[Some] in industry are pushing EPA to delay …my question to these agents of delay is how much is enough. How many lives are they willing to sacrifice in order to have even more time to install pollution controls that have been available for decades?”

Polling shows that throughout the nation, Americans strongly support reducing toxic air pollution from industrials sources. A February 2011 survey by Public Policy Polling revealed that 66% of Americans support “requiring stricter limits on the amount of toxic chemicals such as mercury lead and arsenic that coal power plants and other industrial facilities release.”

The EPA’s final hearing on the toxics rules is in Atlanta today. But going to a hearing isn’t the only way for concerned citizens to weigh in.

If you’d like to say “no thanks” to cancer-causing and brain-poisoning toxins from power plants, send a comment directly to the EPA in support of the toxics proposals by using our quick and easy action page.