Students Push for Arsenic Law
Editor’s note: Since we originally published this article, the proposed legislation passed both the Vermont house and senate. In a surprising turn, Governor Peter Shumlin vetoed the legislation on May 26.
Building on a decade of research by Middlebury faculty, students, and other Vermont researchers, eight Middlebury seniors made their case for tougher arsenic laws last week at the Vermont State House in Montpelier. The students were members of an environmental studies senior seminar, which partnered last fall with the Vermont Geological Society, Vermont Department of Health, and state senator Virginia Lyons to look at data about naturally occurring arsenic in Vermont well water. At the invitation of Senator Lyons, the group testified before the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, offering one of the first comprehensive pictures of arsenic in Vermont, its effects, and what might be done about it.
As the students filed into Room 10, where portraits of former Vermont governors hung on each wall, some studied index cards, while others exchanged greetings with senators and other professionals there to testify.
First to speak was Ashley Cheung ’11, who framed the issue with a poignant story about a little boy named Bjorn from Whiting, Vermont, who had come face to face with arsenic. When Bjorn was three years old, he and his parents moved a short distance to his grandparents’ home in Whiting. Soon Bjorn began suffering mysterious ailments, including a rash, vomiting, and frequent diarrhea.
Even more troubling were Bjorn’s behavioral changes, said Cheung. He was frequently disoriented and lacked his normal energy. He stopped dressing himself, climbing, asking questions, and joking around, said Cheung. After lengthy and inconclusive diagnostics, his parents looked to environmental causes. Water tests of their home well showed slightly elevated levels of arsenic—nothing that would cause concern in an adult—but when the family switched to bottled water, Bjorn improved almost immediately. Within two days he was feeling better and within a few weeks had regained his energy level, though it took several months to return to normal. Now a bright-eyed 5-year-old, Bjorn was a special guest at the committee hearing, seated right behind the students.
The students then dug into their research, which they had split into three groups: spatial, survey and policy. Using PowerPoint slides, the spatial group went first, showing the committee Geographic Information Systems (GIS) maps they had created of known arsenic occurrences around the state. The distribution showed that arsenic is widespread, with some areas of concentration, and that the data suggest more testing is needed throughout the state.
The survey group spoke next. Working in Rutland County, the survey group had explored the public’s understanding of well water and the state’s testing recommendations. They reported big gaps in what people know about both the health risks of arsenic and the relative ease of remediating it. Several physicians they interviewed said they would not be likely to discuss the issue of arsenic with their patients because they did not want to cause alarm. A significant public information campaign would be an essential complement to new legislation, they said.
Wrapping things up, the policy group detailed their findings on how other states are handling arsenic, and recommended policy initiatives to better protect Vermonters in the future. This included a cost analysis and data about Vermonters’ willingness to pay for testing and treatment. They recommended testing all private wells at the time of property transfer, and when a new well is drilled. As part of their plan, the students proposed a rebate program that would cover the cost of testing to homeowners with financial need, whether or not the owner was selling their property.
Pier LaFarge ’11 said that as his group was crafting policy recommendations, they felt it was crucial to know how much it would cost to remedy this problem in Vermont. “We wanted to make sure we weren’t creating a situation in which people were testing and then unable to bear the burden of treatment to have safe drinking water,” he said.
The good news about arsenic, students concluded, is that a remedy is relatively simple and affordable. A reverse osmosis filtration system, now common at Home Depot and other hardware stores, can be installed below a kitchen sink, typically for $300-$500; sometimes less. Full-house systems are not usually needed because arsenic is only harmful when ingested, and is not absorbed through the skin. To Bjorn’s mother Laurel, the cost of a filtration system paled in comparison to the thousands of dollars she and her husband spent on diagnosis of Bjorn’s condition, not to mention months of stress and illness.
The committee members had questions: How would the policy be enforced? What exactly would be mandated? What kind of funding would be necessary? Although some of the questions were outside the students’ level of expertise, they had prepared well and offered thoughtful answers.
A few years ago, a similar bill regarding arsenic in well water failed to pass in the Vermont legislature. Middlebury geology professor Pete Ryan, who taught this class and has conducted arsenic research for many years, thinks the odds are better this time around, thanks in part to the work done by the students. “They took data from very disparate sources and put it all into one GIS package and produced maps that for the first time allowed us to understand the extent and distribution of arsenic in the state,” he said. “That was a lot of work and something the Vermont Geological Survey had wanted to do for many years.”
By the end of the session, the students had given members of the committee a lot to think about. Some of the economic questions have no easy answers—like what does this all mean for the real estate market or a town when a cluster of contaminated wells is discovered.
But the senators seemed appreciative. “I’d like to thank the students for the quality of your research and the quality of your presentation,” said Windsor County Senator Dick McCormack. “We take a lot of testimony here, and often I listen carefully and don’t understand. And I’m not stupid. I get annoyed with people for not making a clear presentation. You presented a lot of material in an understandable way, so thank you.”
Lyons plans to introduce a new bill regarding drinking water safety during the 2010–11 session of the legislature.