Local News

Hundreds Of Wells Across N.C. Test Positive For Arsenic Contamination

Posted May 16, 2003

— State health officials tell WRAL they are alarmed at a growing pollution problem. Hundreds of wells have tested positive for arsenic contamination and that many more may be tainted with this cancer-causing chemical.

In search of a friendlier environment, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Trent moved from California to Orange County, North Carolina 10 years ago.

"I raise most of my own food, I compost and I don't use pesticides on the property. I try to live in a way that is going to be sustainable for my body as well as all the bodies that tread this land after me," she said.

Imagine her shock when Trent discovered her well water is contaminated with arsenic.

"I thought, 'OK, this is great. That's one more thing to worry about, right?'" she said.

More than 200 other Orange County residents are victims of naturally-occurring arsenic in their well water.

"I want you to know that people haul water from my well because it tastes so good," Trent said.

That is one of the problems with arsenic in well water. It has no taste, smell or color, but it can make you sick.

"It's very strongly associated with skin cancer, lung cancer and bladder cancer," said Dr. Ken Rudo, state toxicologist.

So far, 662 wells have tested positive in 48 of the state's 100 counties.

The problem areas around the Triangle are Wake, Durham, Orange, Chatham, Moore, southeastern Person and northwestern Granville counties. In the western Piedmont, Alexander, Catawba, Gaston, Stanly and Union counties have seen the highest levels of arsenic in groundwater.

Could there be more contaminated wells that the state does not know about?

"Absolutely, there's no doubt about it," Rudo said. "We have struggled to try to get wells tested.

Most counties only require basic bacteria tests for new wells. Wake County may soon also require arsenic tests after high levels turned up in an upscale Swift Creek neighborhood, called Stone Rose.

Solutions to arsenic contamination are not cheap. Store Rose residents are having to spend more than $7,000 to tap into Cary's public water system. Those residents have an option and are fortunate to have discovered the problem early, unlike many others.

"If you've had a well for 10, 15 or 20 years, and we detect arsenic contamination today, chances are very good that you have had it since the day you drilled your well," Rudo said.

That means many people may already be at risk for cancer, since arsenic accumulates in the body over many years.

Trent said is not so worried about herself.

"I think if there is any budgetary issues to remedy the problem, that those need to be target houses -- people with small children and pregnant women," she said.

State health officials call arsenic the most potent carcinogen found in groundwater. They said any amount of it -- no matter how small -- is reason for concern.

To get a well tested, contact the local health department. If arsenic is found in the water, state health officials should be contacted and can help homeowners with their options, like reverse osmosis filter systems, which work best in reducing contamination.

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