8 August 2016

A silent threat: Raising awareness about arsenic in well water

Posted by Shane Hanlon

This is a guest post by graduate student Brittany Huhmann as part of our ongoing series of posts where we ask students to share their experiences in science communication.


Meeting with then-Senator Tom Harkin to discuss arsenic in Iowa well water. Photo credit – Brittany Huhmann

As a Ph.D. student, I spend a lot of time testing soils and groundwater for arsenic in far-off places like Bangladesh and India. Arsenic is a well-known carcinogen that negatively impacts millions of people in these and other south and southeast Asian countries. But arsenic is also a problem closer to home. Before starting my PhD, I worked as a master’s student at the University of Iowa, studying how arsenic interacts with minerals in aquifers and soils. I was drawn to this work by my interest in the chemistry of these systems, but my interest gained a broader dimension when I became aware that arsenic posed health risks for well owners in my state.

Nearly 800,000 Iowans rely on private wells for their drinking water and 8% of private wells surveyed in 2008 had unsafe arsenic concentrations according to national standards. In 2013, when I finished up my master’s program, most Iowa well owners were not aware that they should be testing their water for arsenic. Free arsenic testing was not widely available through the state’ s Grants to Counties program that lets well owners test for nitrate and fecal coliform contamination. Many people in rural Iowa were likely unknowingly exposing themselves and their children to arsenic that could cause cancer, heart disease, developmental effects, and other health problems.

Knowing that some of my friends were well owners who had been unaware of this issue gave my concerns a personal dimension. So I began to take action. I read up on the issue and talked with experts around the state. I learned that Cerro Gordo County in northern Iowa already provided its residents with free arsenic testing and would soon require arsenic testing of new wells. However, the 2008 survey had shown that arsenic contamination was a statewide problem, and thus a broader effort was needed to protect the residents of other impacted counties across Iowa. After completing additional research into other state’s arsenic programs, I emailed several Iowa state legislators with a 2-page policy memo describing the arsenic problem and a proposed legislative solution. One of the legislators I emailed, Dan Kelley, is a cancer survivor who is committed to cancer prevention. Representative Kelley responded to my message with a suggestion that we collaborate on a bill. By the end of the next legislative session, he had drafted and introduced “An Act relating to testing for arsenic in private wells.” The bill adds arsenic testing to the Grants to Counties program and requires arsenic testing when a new well is drilled and upon property transfer.


Testing soils in Bangladesh for arsenic contamination. Photo credit: David Funkhouser

Unfortunately, the bill didn’t pass in that first legislative session, or in the next. However, Cerro Gordo County has continued to strengthen its programs for dealing with arsenic contamination at the county level, and state agency employees I talked with while working on the legislation have since updated the Grants to Counties program to include free arsenic testing of private wells across the state. My hope is that this progress will continue, and that all Iowans will have adequate knowledge of the arsenic problem and access to testing and treatment, no matter the mechanism by which this progress occurs.



-Brittany Huhmann is a PhD Candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT and continues to engage with policy as State and Local Affairs Chair for the MIT Graduate Student Council. You can learn more about Brittany and her work at bhuhmann.weebly.com.