Michigan's Silent Poison (Part 3)
8:30 am
Wed July 2, 2014

There's arsenic in Michigan's well water, but not a lot of people are talking about it

Parts of southeast Michigan – especially in the Thumb – have higher than average levels of arsenic in the groundwater.

Arsenic can cause cancer. It’s been linked to bladder, lung and kidney cancer, and other serious health effects.

If you’re on city water, there’s a federal regulation that limits the amount of arsenic in it, but if you’re on a private well, it’s up to you to find out whether there’s too much arsenic in your water.

Jim Carroll is the president of Metamora Water Service in Lapeer and he’s been in the well drilling business for 35 years.  

Carroll said a lot of people that have lived in the area for a long period of time aren't going to pay attention to the arsenic issue. 

"Everybody's been drinking this water for years. Of course if somebody died, maybe the arsenic had something to do with it, you don't really know, but I'll take my chances."

"Because they’ve lived there a long time and it hasn’t bothered them and they’re still alive and kicking," he said. 

Carroll said people rarely ask him about testing a well for arsenic, and he’ll often drink cold water right out of the ground when he’s drilling a well.

"Everybody’s been drinking this water for years. Of course if somebody died, maybe the arsenic had something to do with it, you don’t really know, but I'll take my chances," Carroll said.

Not much information and not much testing

If you ask people in Lapeer about arsenic, you’ll find some people know about the high arsenic levels in their area, but others don’t.

There are no state laws requiring people to test private wells for arsenic, so it falls to local health departments to get the word out.

Dorothy Wicks is the Environmental Health Director at the Lapeer County Health Department. She said there was a big push to get people to test their wells around a decade ago. That’s when the Environmental Protection Agency lowered the limit for arsenic in public water sources.

Sampling done from 1983 through 2003 shows where arsenic levels in groundwater are the highest in Michigan. Arsenic levels are in micrograms per liter.
Credit Michigan DEQ

Lapeer and Genesee counties are among the counties that have some of the highest levels of arsenic in the state, but neither of those counties require any arsenic testing for residential wells.

I asked Wicks what she thought her responsibility was as an agency to keep that awareness up?

“What is our responsibility?” She repeated back. “ I don’t know. I just don’t - I don’t want it to be inflammatory. You know, I don’t want to keep the level of awareness up so high that people are anxiety-ridden about their arsenic.”

Wicks says her staff is supposed to tell people they can test for arsenic, but she’s not sure they always do.

Other county health departments handle this issue differently.

Some counties, like Washtenaw and Ingham, require people to test for arsenic when they sell their house. A few other counties require testing of new wells.

In Livingston County, anyone who wants to drill a new well or replace a well has to test for arsenic.

In Livingston County, anyone who wants to drill a new well or replace a well has to test for arsenic. And if it comes back above the federal limit, they have to install treatment before they can get a permit.

Matt Bolang is the Director of Environmental Health with the Livingston County Health Department.

“It’s important to remind people arsenic is an issue with groundwater and it’s something to monitor over time and get the word out about. I don’t know where that responsibility falls. It probably falls to local health departments, but the state could play some role too.”

The Michigan Department of Community Health declined our interview request. A spokesperson said they didn’t have anyone at the state level who could talk with us about arsenic.

Go here for more information about how to test your well in Michigan.

*This story was reported in partnership with David Heath from the Center for Public Integrity and produced as part of a collaboration among the Center for Public Integrity, The Center for Investigative Reporting and Michigan Radio.  It was featured on Reveal, a new program from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

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