Water questions spark forum to help find answers

Posted: Monday, February 25, 2002

The Kenai Watershed Forum will distribute free water testing kits at the Soldotna Village Fair Saturday to help Kenai Peninsula residents check arsenic levels in their drinking water.

The forum, which normally focuses water quality studies on the health of fish, has encountered many questions lately about drinking water quality and decided to help people get answers.

"Because we have been collecting water quality information and showing data locally, people have been asking about drinking water: 'If that's in the water, what are we drinking?'" Ruffner said. "We don't know, but we're in contact with scientists who do that kind of work.

"When we start looking at water quality for the purpose of maintaining the ecosystem, people become part of the ecosystem," he said. "Environmental motives meet with public health."

Arsenic is one of many elements abundant in the rocks in this area. As rocks break down over time, traces of the minerals can seep into water. The problem is that long-term exposure to arsenic can lead to lung and bladder cancer.

"The threshold for toxic levels is still being debated," Ruffner said.

Currently, public drinking water must contain less than 50 parts per billion of arsenic. Newly-passed legislation will bring that standard to 10 parts per billion in 2006.

Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey released the results of 30 years worth of water testing in the Cook Inlet Basin. The study tested 220 wells throughout the basin, including 109 in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, between 1969 and 1999. It found that 40 percent of the tested wells on the peninsula measured arsenic levels above the 10 parts per billion standard and 9 percent measured above the 50 parts per billion standard.

In comparison, only 17 percent of wells in the Municipality of Anchorage and 29 percent of wells in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough failed the 10 parts per billion guideline. None surpassed 50 parts per billion.

"This is an area where arsenic is abundant," Ruffner said. "Unfortunately, very few private wells are tested."

In response, the Kenai Watershed Forum decided to step outside its mission and provide the free test kits.

"We want to give residents an opportunity to find out what's in their water," Ruffner said.

The free kits will include a test bottle, instructions and an envelope to send water samples to Northern Testing Laboratories in Fairbanks. Tests for arsenic will cost $30 and results should be available in 15 business days.

If the analysis finds high levels of arsenic, residents have a few choices. They can switch to bottled water or investigate the various water treatment systems on the market, Ruffner said.

"The unfortunate thing about arsenic is that it is fairly hard to remove and the systems are fairly expensive," said Toni Dyer of Ecowater Systems in Kenai.

She said distillation will remove arsenic, as well as 99 percent of other contaminants, but the systems can be pricey. Many other filtration systems are not effective against arsenic.

However, she said, new technologies are being developed every day and with the approaching regulation change, she believes more effective systems will be available soon.

To get a free test kit, visit the Kenai Watershed Forum booth at the Soldotna Village Fair between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday at Soldotna High School.

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