All About Arsenic +

“Promoting environmental health literacy through science communication and intergenerational learning in a K-12 safe drinking water citizen science project (Communicating Data)”

“Communicating Data” is a 5-year NIH-NINR Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) (2023-2028) to advance a national model of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education. This project aims to engage students as citizen scientists and provide them with the tools and skills to test wells in their communities and analyze the data. As part of the project, students will: 

  • Use the scientific process to ask real-world questions about drinking water contamination. 
  • Collect drinking water samples in their homes and communities for analysis of toxic metals. 
  • Create data visualizations to include in outreach materials, videos, and podcasts to increase awareness about safe drinking water.
  • Mobilize communities to address issues related to drinking water safety through community meetings, forums, advocacy, and events. 

What is All About Arsenic+?

All About Arsenic+ encompasses multiple citizen science collaborations with communities to assess arsenic and other toxic contaminants in drinking water, soil, and crops.

This collaborative public health project was initiated in 2015 by researchers at MDI Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) and Dartmouth College’s Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program. With new funding from NIH SEPA, we will engage teachers and students across Maine and New Hampshire in collecting drinking water from both public and private systems with a focus on multiple toxic metals, including arsenic, uranium, manganese, and lead. Hence, the “plus”!

Arsenic is a known toxin and a contaminant in private well water used for drinking water. New England has a relatively high probability of arsenic in domestic wells compared to other areas of the country, as seen in the map below. We are now exploring the prevalence of other toxic metals in both public and private drinking water through our school-based program “Communicating Data”.

Why has arsenic been a focus?

A USGS model published in 2017 predicts 2.1 million people in the United States drink well water containing arsenic above the EPA Maximum Contaminant Level of 10 ug/L. The map below shows the probability of finding arsenic greater than 10 ug/L in wells across the continental United States.

In states like Maine and New Hampshire, wells are usually drilled into hard crystalline bedrock, which tends to increase the likelihood of high arsenic. Maine and New Hampshire also have among the highest per capita reliance on private wells for drinking water in the United States (ME: 56% and NH: 46%), yet testing rates are low.

Given the high reliance on private well water throughout Maine and New Hampshire and rather low testing rates, raising awareness and increasing testing were key factors in this study.

heat map of probability of arsenic
The map above depicts the likelihood of arsenic in well water (green= low probability and red = high probability). Source.

High arsenic in the groundwater of New England (red area in the map on the left) is at least in part due to the underlying meta-sedimentary and igneous rocks of the region (grey area in the map on the right; Peters, 2008). Given the high reliance on private well water throughout ME and NH and rather low testing rates, raising awareness and increasing testing are motivating factors for student engagement.

How does the program work?

“Communicating Data” will engage teachers and researchers throughout Maine and New Hampshire in expanding drinking water testing for arsenic and other toxic metals. There will be a focus on building science communication skills among students so that they can use their data effectively to increase awareness of drinking water contamination issues in their communities.

Between 2015 – 2023, over 35 schools, universities, and institutions collected water samples across Maine and New Hampshire.

Thousands of drinking water samples were collected and are helping to inform the Maine Center for Disease Control and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, two government agencies working to improve well water testing rates and public health.

Moving forward, we will expand sampling efforts to include public water systems as well as private drinking water sources, increase our focus to include uranium, manganese, and lead, emphasize science communication, and facilitate intergenerational learning.

Sipayik Elementary is one of several new schools joining our SEPA project and will begin to address drinking water contamination issues as part of their community engagement process. Noela Altvater, a tribal member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, created a story map that highlights the issues of water quality faced by the tribe for many years.