Editor’s note: Next week’s Redoubt Reporter will continue an examination of arsenic levels in drinking water, focusing on the perspective that arsenic contamination is not a serious concern.
By Jenny Neyman
Think before you drink.
That phrase usually refers to booze, as in campaigns to prevent drinking and driving or admonishing mothers against fetal alcohol syndrome.
On the central Kenai Peninsula, there’s a much more common beverage that requires attention — plain, old, unassuming water.
Filling up a glass at the tap from houses on private wells and even municipal sources may get residents more than they bargained for, including an increased risk of cancer and a whole slew of side effects, from fatigue and skin discolorization to respiratory tract irritation and possibly even seizures.
That’s because most drinking water in the area contains arsenic, a toxin that comes from minerals dissolving into underground aquifers. There isn’t much argument over whether arsenic is in the water, even through it isn’t detectable by sight, smell or taste, or that some wells have arsenic levels high enough to pose health risks and warrant the instillation of costly water filtration systems.
Other issues regarding arsenic stir up debate.
How much is too much?
How widespread are high arsenic levels?
For that matter, what level of arsenic is considered high?
Answers vary. Some describe a situation that is near epidemic, posing serious health risks to the majority of the population.
“The level of the significance of it on the peninsula is so ridiculously high that I think every single person should have their well tested specifically for arsenic,” said Dr. Robert Thompson, who has tested and treated patients for high arsenic levels in his Soldotna practice for the past five years.
Not only are dangerously high arsenic levels common in water sources on the central Kenai Peninsula, but most people have no idea their water is contaminated because there are no regulations requiring arsenic testing or setting acceptable contaminant limits for private wells, Thompson said.
Others say it isn’t that big of an issue and that concern over arsenic may be a misperception stemming from the Environmental Protection Agency a few years ago changing the maximum amount of arsenic allowed in municipal water sources, which are governed under the Clean Water Act. The allowed limit was lowered, but that doesn’t mean the amount of arsenic has increased.
“Generally on the Kenai Peninsula we have good water. As far as health concerns, it’s generally good,” said Mike Tauriainen, owner of Tauriainen Engineering and Northern Test Lab in Soldotna, which does water analysis.
When arsenic is concerned, one thing is clear — it’s a murky subject.
Water woesJanette MacDonald chocked up her weight gain and diminishing energy to getting older.
She’d always been fit and active, doing rodeo when she was younger. She still works out an hour a day, on top of the physical demands of taking care of her and her husband’s livestock and running the Sterling Moose River Dog Kennel they operate out of their home. The MacDonalds eat well, avoiding most processed food and even raising their own beef. And she drinks water “like a cow,” she said, downing several liters a day from her kitchen faucet.
Despite all that, she gained 60 to 70 pounds over about five years, and no amount of diet or exercise would take it off. Her energy level was shot to the point where she’d have to take naps during the day just to recharge enough keep the kennel up. Her hair was brittle and falling out, she developed skin spots and nail discoloration, and was having trouble with her memory. She was 50 at the time, in 2006, and figured it was all an inevitable part of age catching up with her.
“I was fighting the weight but I thought, ‘Well, I’m just not eating very good.’ We push all this off as we’re aging, we’re getting older, our bodies aren’t responding as well. We need to eat better and exercise more, but that just makes you tireder,” MacDonald said.
In March 2006 she went with her daughter to an appointment with Dr. Robert Thompson in Soldotna. Being acquaintances through kenneling Dr. Thompson’s dog on occasion, he asked how MacDonald was doing. She didn’t hesitate in telling him she felt like hell.
Thompson is a proponent of measuring and addressing mineral deficiencies in patients to improve their health, rather than prescribing medication for a host of ills. It’s a philosophy he developed in writing his book, “The Calcium Lie,” and in developing a treatment strategy for hyperthyroidism (an underactive thyroid), which he said is a common problem for people who are overweight.
“I’m just trying to take better care of patients,” Thompson said. “The way we practice medicine today is not right, it’s messed up. We can’t presume to get people better with pills. Somewhere along the way in medical school we forgot about the biology of disease and figure if you have a medical problem you must have a drug deficiency.”
Thompson recommended MacDonald have a hair mineral analysis done. A hair sample was sent to a lab in Texas and analyzed to determine the levels of minerals and toxins in MacDonald’s system. The results came back showing McDonald’s arsenic level was off the charts at 204 parts per billion. The recommended limit is 10 ppb. The chart from the lab only went up to 70 ppb.
“I was like, ‘Oh, crap,” she said.
Her arsenic level was so high it was robbing her body of other, needed minerals, she said. Sodium, potassium, magnesium, zinc — “everything else was below the level it should be at,” she said. “Arsenic pulls all the good stuff out of you. Your body is so busy fighting it you don’t absorb any of the nutrients.”
Arsenic is bioaccumulative, meaning it builds up over time. At elevated levels it can contribute to a host of problems, including weight gain, fatigue, hair loss, skin rashes, pigmentation of nails, confusion, numbness in hands and feet, respiratory tract irritation, muscle aches, stomach problems and even seizures, and it can lead to an increase in free radical formation, which ages connective tissue in the body, Thompson said. It’s also linked to increased cancer risks, especially skin, lung and liver cancer.
“When is exceeds 10 parts per billion, it increases the cancer risk 30 times, and so it’s a real, significant problem from the long-term standpoint, as well as potentially a shorter-term standpoint,” he said.
Arsenic can come from a variety of sources, including eating some forms of seafood and some brands of store-bought chicken, and breathing smoke from burning treated lumber, Thompson said. But none of that would explain MacDonald’s high level. The most likely culprit was also the most mundane — her home drinking water.
The MacDonalds had their well water tested for arsenic, and sure enough, it came back at 70 ppb. The maximum level recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency is 10 ppb.
“It’s a huge problem on the peninsula, about 80 percent of the wells, based on the testing I’ve seen, have high arsenic levels,” Thompson said. “I’m more surprised when they’re not elevated than when I see them when they are elevated.”
MacDonald has lived in her house off Otter Drive in Sterling for about 20 years now and had no idea there was a problem with her water. After the diagnosis she and her husband, Charlie, had a water filtration system installed that removed arsenic from all the water used in the house, for drinking, cooking, bathing and cleaning.
“I never even heard of it. Nobody ever talked about it. I had no idea,” MacDonald said. “You look at the water and it looks good and it tastes good and that’s it. We had the best-tasting water in Sterling. It was clear and beautiful and it was sweet. People would come fill up water jugs at our house. Now it’s on a filter and it’s flat-tasting.”
MacDonald’s husband and daughter had their arsenic levels tested and they were found to be slightly elevated, but nowhere near the degree hers was. But she’s lived in the home longer and works there running the kennel, so tap water was what she drank all day, every day, for 20 years. Charlie works as a Homer Electric Association lineman and isn’t around the house as much. Plus, he isn’t a big water drinker. Neither is MacDonald’s daughter.
Thompson has been recommending tissue analyses in his practice since 2000 among his patients in Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula. Anchorage patients show elevated arsenic levels occasionally, but it’s much more common on the peninsula, he said. He estimates having about 1,000 hair analyses done for patients in the last nine years of practice — the last five in Soldotna — and from those results said that arsenic “is a huge problem.”
“The Sports Lake area — everybody’s got high arsenic. Mackey Lake, same thing. And Longmere Lake, same thing — high arsenic levels. Every single well in that area has it. And when you eat the fish out of those lakes, guess what you’re getting — arsenic. Kenai, Nikiski, Kasilof — same problem,” Thompson said.
He speaks from personal experience, as well, after finding the drinking water at the house he brought on Sports Lake Road had an elevated arsenic level, he said.
“I think I lost about half the hair on my head within the first year I moved to the Sports Lake area until I realized what was going on,” he said.
Once a high arsenic level is diagnosed, the first step of treatment is preventing any more accumulation of the toxin. That means getting water from an uncontaminated source or, more feasibly for most people on private wells, installing a filtration system. Treatment options have changed over the years, and Thompson said he now prescribes a product called Metal-Free, a chelation agent that removes heavy metals by binding to the metal ions and flushing them out of the body. MacDonald said she also had treatment for an underactive thyroid, underwent feet detoxification treatments at a spa in Soldotna, and credits the support of her Taking Off Pounds Sensibly group, AK No. 164 in Soldotna, for helping her lose the weight she put on.
A year later, in April 2007, MacDonald had another hair analysis done. This one showed her mineral counts to be back to normal and her arsenic level down to 13 ppb. She lost about 60 pounds, her skin and nail discolorization was fading and she felt better than she had in years, she said.
“I’ve got energy all over the place now and I’m two years older,” she said.
Since the experience she’s made it her mission to inform people about the dangers of arsenic in drinking water. She’s told all her neighbors and friends to get their water tested, and her TOPS group had an information program about the subject.
“I would say a high percentage of the wells all have arsenic in them and a lot of them haven’t even tested their wells, and I’m on the bandwagon going, ‘Wait a second, guys, at least get your water tested. At least rule that out,’” MacDonald said. “Some say, ‘Oh, it’s not going to bother me.’ Well, it hasn’t yet, but arsenic builds up in your system. It doesn’t go away.”
Thirst for knowledgeIf MacDonald and Thompson are on the bandwagon to warn people with private wells about arsenic, Mike Polocz from Culligan is taking the reins to raise public awareness. He said he’s alarmed not only about the level of arsenic he’s seen in private well water since he moved to the central Kenai Peninsula, but also the lack of knowledge about the situation.
“If this was happening down in Illinois when I was there, this would be all over the news. I mean all over. And I just don’t get it,” he said.
Culligan sells water filtration systems and for the last eight years has done arsenic testing, Polocz says. The test is a kit where Polocz adds a chemical to an unfiltered water sample, which turns a strip of paper a shade of orange or yellow, depending on the amount of arsenic in the water. The color is matched to a key to show the arsenic level. He said the test has an error rating of plus or minus 5, and shows arsenic levels in parts per billion.
He said his concern over the issue isn’t due to his company selling water filtration systems. He’s concerned about the health implications, he said. As such, he said Culligan is offering free arsenic water testing on all new wells, and for existing wells through the beginning of March. Otherwise the test costs $25.
“I didn’t think (arsenic) was that bad until I realized how high it’s gotten and how many are oblivious to its existence or effects,” Polocz said.
He said the frequency of finding high arsenic levels is increasing. He used to find a well with 70 ppb perhaps once a month, he said, but in February he tested two on Kalifornsky Beach Road that tested at 70 ppb at the same time. Well depths and differences in aquifers affect arsenic levels, and arsenic levels can differ at homes even right across the street. But by and large if a neighbor has a problem, the rest of the area probably does, too, he said. He also theorized that earthquake activity might increase arsenic levels in water, so that a previous test result years before may no longer be valid.
His own water, off Betty Lou in Sterling, had tested previously at 50 ppb. He tested it again recently and got a result of 80 ppb, he said.
“It’s a good thing I’m moving,” he said. “I’m probably a little paranoid. Now that I know about it, I get out of the shower and I’m looking at my arms and stuff.”
Polocz recommends a filtration system for drinking water that has 10 ppb of arsenic or higher. At 50 ppb, he recommends a whole-house filtration system, because arsenic can be absorbed through the skin at high levels.
“Treat all the water in your house so when you fill up the tub and put your kids in it you’re not putting them in 70 parts-per-billion arsenic,” he said.
Polocz has started putting colored dots on a map of the central peninsula hanging on a wall in the Culligan office to represent well sites that have tested high for arsenic, with large orange dots for 70 ppb and smaller ones for lesser levels. It creates a striking visual, with ominous clusters of color particularly in Sterling, the Sports Lake area and along Kalifornsky Beach Road.
Polocz said most people aren’t even aware there might be a problem, since arsenic testing isn’t required on private wells.
“I’m learning more and more about it every day,” he said. “Well drillers are happy when they’re under three parts-per-billion iron and it’s not coming out like tomato sauce. Hear no evil, see no evil. Once they hit good water under three parts-per-billion of iron, it is what it is.”