Arsenic not just a city issue

Posted: Thursday, December 04, 2008

Much has been written lately about arsenic in city drinking water, especially as Kenai Peninsula municipalities respond to new, tighter U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards allowing no more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic in city water as of Jan. 23, 2006.

Arsenic, however, is not exclusively present in city drinking water systems. It also occurs in private water wells.

Why is that a concern?

According to the EPA, "Non-cancer effects can include thickening and discoloration of the skin, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, numbness is hands and feet, partial paralysis and blindness.

"Arsenic has been linked to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver and prostate."

For Mike Polocz, water treatment specialist with Culligan, based out of the office next to Big John's Tesoro on the Sterling Highway, those are reasons enough to be concerned, but what really worries him is that people on private wells have little or no knowledge of arsenic, he said.

When people purchase a home on the Kenai Peninsula, wells are generally tested only for the presence of E. coli bacteria and coliforms.

"Other than that, you're on your own," said Polocz.

Until recently Culligan's business has focused on hardness in residential drinking water and iron.

"Now we're getting more calls -- 10 a week -- for arsenic testing," he said.

The test for the presence or arsenic, which takes about one-half hour, costs $25.

Through March, any new wells Culligan is called to test are being tested free of charge, Polocz said.

He also said homeowners need not wait to have a water treatment specialist come to their homes. They can drop water samples off at the Culligan office. A drop box is mounted next to the office door, if no one is there when the sample is brought in.

"Freezing does not affect the test," Polocz said.

With no intention of alarming people, he said one Sterling resident off Otter Trail who had her water tested found arsenic levels of 70 ppb -- seven times the EPA allowable limit.

The woman had been mysteriously ill for some time and no one could isolate the cause, he said, until the water test results showed the arsenic.

"The woman nearly died," Polocz said.

Another well tested on Sports Lake Road showed an arsenic level of 49.86 ppb, and one on Mooring Drive between Soldotna and Kenai showed a 30 ppb arsenic level.

Typically, the lowest arsenic levels occur in the shallower wells, according to Polocz.

"Wells deeper than 100 feet ... 80 percent have arsenic ... as low as 10 (ppb) and as high as a couple hundred (ppb)," he said.

Wells in proximity to the Kenai River "are almost guaranteed to have it."

Once the arsenic is detected, it can be removed by reverse osmosis using an iron oxide media filter.

"Carbon filters will not remove arsenic," Polocz said.

Iron oxide filters also will trap some iron and some tannins, also common in central peninsula water supplies.

Culligan offers small, under-the-sink filters ranging in capacity from 1,000 to 3,000 gallons, as well as larger five-stage purification systems with holding tanks.

Because the dangers of arsenic are by ingestion, not from absorption through the skin, high levels of arsenic need to be removed from domestic drinking water and water used for rinsing vegetables, according to Polocz, not from water used for showering.

He said area drilling companies, for the most part, are in favor of arsenic testing.

"It's only gonna help people," Polocz said.

Phil Hermanek can be reached at

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