|© Mark Bialek|
"It's all over," says Allison Dondzila of Cribley Drilling & Champion Water in Dexter. She figures the company finds dangerous levels of arsenic in the water of one out of twenty wells it drills, and it drills hundreds every year.
"It's not that the situation is worsening," says Leon Moore, director of the environmental health division of Washtenaw County's public health department. "It's that we're doing more testing. We thought it was isolated to the northwest corner of the county ten years ago, and now we're finding arsenic in isolated pockets throughout the county."
The idea of arsenic poisoning is understandably terrifying. "Elevated levels of arsenic can cause bladder, lung, skin, and prostate cancer," says Dondzila. "There are also neurological effects," adds Moore, "for example, numbness in hands and other extremities as well as the face." And let's not forget increased risk of stroke.
As evidence of arsenic's dangers mounted, in 2001 the US Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was cutting the amount allowed in public water supplies from fifty to ten parts per billion. Soon after, Washtenaw County lowered the amount permitted in private wells to match the federal standard. Moore explains the thinking behind the change: "People over 50 ppb will have a problem," he says, "but at 10 ppb, you'd have to drink two liters a day for seventy years for it to have an effect."
What's a poison doing in well water in the first place? "Arsenic is a natural contaminant found in bedrock," explains Moore. "We have a lot of iron in Washtenaw County, and arsenic is attracted to iron. We've also found that we've seen higher levels of arsenic in homes that have been vacant for a while."
Moore's department will test water samples for residents for $17. The tests are mandatory for all new homes and wells and when existing homes are sold or the deed is transferred. The department has tested about 8,000 homes since 2001. Only one-half of 1 percent exceeded
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