Duke University group offers free well testing for study
Over the last several weeks, letters and postcards started arriving in Union County mailboxes, inviting residents to take part in an arsenic study. Students from Duke University launched the project, in hopes of proving a link between arsenic levels and cancer.
“You can’t taste arsenic, you can’t smell arsenic,” Brittany Merola, the Duke graduate student in charge of the project, said. “The point of this is to help people understand what’s in their water. We’re working with the county’s environmental health department, doing well testing all over Union.”
Samples from a series of wells near Fairview, evaluated by North Carolina’s Occupational Environmental Epidemiology branch in 2008 found average arsenic levels of 67 parts per billion, well above the recommended state groundwater standard of 0.02 parts per billion. “The arsenic level may pose an increased cancer risk upon consumption of 2 liters of water per day over an extended time period (over 30 years),” the report stated. Also according to the state report, at the time, Union County ranked No. 1 in arsenic reported in wells, mainly in the Fairview and Hemby Bridge areas, where state officials found an estimated 40 to 45 percent of the wells had at least one part per billion of arsenic. Merola and her group want to see if that trend continues throughout the county.
Merola’s group will test local wells free of charge, to let people know what’s in the water. They also request that residents give them toenail clippings, to use as a ‘biomarker’. Toenails can be tested to determine if a person has a high amount of arsenic in their system.
“We want to find out where the arsenic is at in Union and where there’s a high concentration,” Merola said.
This will be the group’s second study in Union County. Two years ago, the same student group collected a small sample of private wells in Fairview.
Wesley Chapel council officials hope to spread the word about the arsenic testing. Although the council is not officially endorsing the testing because of the toenail clippings individuals would be asked to give, mayor Brad Horvath does want the public to know that the option is out there.
“There have been indications of arsenic in some wells,” Horvath said. “I’m not trying to put a scare into anybody, but it’s a fact. (The council doesn’t) need to endorse it, honestly, but it’s a program that’s out there. We can get the word out to people who are interested.”
The council plans to add a link on the village Web site that will give residents more information about the arsenic testing, disclosing information about the testing process. Council members also mentioned sending out a memo to the different churches in the area.
“I guess if we put it on the Web site, we need to have full disclosure,” council member Todd Hess said. “This is to identify whether there’s a correlation between arsenic in your well and what shows up in your toenail clippings. I think we need to indicate that if you are interested in participating in this study, you will be expected to sign a consent form.”
So far, Merola and her group sent out 3,000 letters, asking people to allow them to test local wells and take toenail clippings. The students are afraid that residents might toss out the postcards before reading.
“We’re just afraid people might think it’s junkmail,” Merola said. “We’re slowly making some progress.”
The group hopes to finish the study over the next few months, then hold a workshop for local residents, showing what they found and what area had the worst contamination.