By Matthew Wirth

How well do we know our water? The absence of evidence does not guarantee evidence of absence. Just because one may not suffer the harmful effect of arsenic from a single glass of water, it does not mean that ingesting arsenic, even small doses, does not do harm. The purpose of this article is not to scare; it is to provide information to help water industry professionals communicate concerning arsenic—information that allows end users to take control of their health care and do what is necessary to protect their water supply.

Over this author’s 30-year career, no other change in maximum contaminant level (MCL )—50 ppb (ug/L) to 10 ppb (ug/L) As (arsenic), according the US EPA—has created more buzz and resulted in more head-scratching than arsenic. Why do people seem to guffaw at the issue? Is it because it is colorless, odorless and has no taste? Or, is it that people suffer from the ’chicken little’ syndrome from a lifetime of ever-changing media reports of the next great danger on the horizon? From Y2K, to killer bees, to Dr. Oz raising concerns over arsenic in apple juice, the general public receives ample input to question the validity of reports that the sky is falling. Researchers cannot even agree on the health effects of caffeine. We live in a world of information overload where everything is called into question. We are left trying to decide what is true and what is bunk. Our society’s vital beliefs and behaviors are affected, for better or worse, by a never-ending stream of information. It is no wonder that when US EPA came out with a new MCL for arsenic in potable water—five times lower than originally mandated—that people failed to show much concern. One should note research showed that the original MCL of 50 ppb (ug/L) was shown to be non-protective and many researchers believe that 10 ppb (ug/L) is too high. New Jersey set their level at five ppb (ug/L).

As an industry, we need to understand the dangers of arsenic and believe the research before we can express the importance of reducing this Level One contaminant to below 10 ppb for our customers (except in New Jersey and South Carolina where the level is five ug/L), who trust their water professional to provide safe, clean water for their families. Take a look at or search YouTube for In Small Doses: Arsenic. This is an eye-opening video produced by Dartmouth College and The Toxic Metals Superfund Research.1 One of their findings links immune deficiencies caused by arsenic poisoning (arsenicosis) to an increased susceptibility to H1N1. Dartmouth researchers believe that an arsenic level of five parts per billion is the safer number and is the potential target for some states’ MCL. Molecular Toxicologist at Dartmouth University, Joshua Hamilton states that research shows there is potential endocrine disruption (interference with the hormone system) at levels of one ppb. Recent findings show that consumption of water with levels as low as 0.00017mg/L (0.17ppb) over long periods of time can lead to arsenicosis.2

Did arsenic just appear one day or did aliens inject it into our wells in some evil plot to take over the planet? Where did it come from? Arsenic is a naturally occurring mineral and present in abundance in some regions. Looking at the maps provided by Minnesota Department of Health, one sees how the arsenic concentrations follow the tract of the Keewatin and Hudson Ice Domes. There are pockets of arsenic that are man-made from the use of pesticides, insecticides and industrial waste. During the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, arsenic was used as a poison to stop the hordes of grasshoppers from overrunning the Great Plains.3 In the Des Moines Tube Till tract, 10 percent of the public water systems (PWS) exceed 10 ppb of arsenic. Outside that footprint, only two percent of PWS exceed 10 ppb.4 Arsenic is no stranger to this region, just an unwelcome guest; in Minnesota and Iowa, they blame the Canadians!

US EPA, after extensive research, revised the MCL in 2001. In the winter of 2006, the agency began enforcing the MCL for total arsenic at 10 ppb. Studies showed that the risks associated with 50 ppb exceeded US EPA protocol and this level was dangerous to humans. Previous reports showed evidence that the high MCL for arsenic was an issue, but it was difficult to test for arsenic below 50 ppb. Arsenic occurs naturally in water in the oxidation states +3 and +5. Whether it occurs as ’arsenic three’ or ’arsenic five’ depends on the water chemistry and pH. It is not uncommon to find both species in the same water supply. Accurately identifying the species is crucial to developing a removal strategy. Not every technology removes both As (V) and As (III) from water; i.e., reverse osmosis is not recommended for As (III). In addition, the capacity of most adsorptive media for As (III) species is much lower than the capacity for As (V). Ion exchange methods of treatment do not remove As (III) and therefore it is necessary to speciate the arsenic prior to applying this technology.

Another matter of concern in developing application methods for arsenic is the levels of competing constituents. One major competing ion is phosphorus. Phosphorus (P) is in the same chemical family as arsenic (As) and is located directly above it on the Periodic Table. In essence, iron adsorption technologies do not know the difference between arsenic and phosphorus. The phosphorus competes directly with arsenic for the adsorption sites. In addition, the effect of silica on arsenic removal capacity becomes increasingly problematic at pH values above 7.5. Prior to 1975, technology was limited to testing to 50 ppb of arsenic. The standard was set at that level because labs could not test below 50 ppb; therefore, it became the MCL. Research suggested that the cancer rate above the 50-ppb level was one in 1,001. The threshold for other toxic chemicals is one in 1,000,000. After 1975, testing improved and detection levels could find arsenic in the single digits of parts per billion. In 2000, the president first signed Public Law 106-337 to issue a deadline for lowering the arsenic level. The final mandate took effect January 23, 2006 at the 10 ppb (ug/L) MCL. The original statement, which can be found on the US EPA website, is as follows: “EPA is proposing to reduce the public health risks from arsenic in drinking water. The Agency is proposing to change the current arsenic standard from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 5 ppb in drinking water. This proposed revision will provide additional protection for 22.5 million Americans from cancer and other health problems, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as developmental and neurological effects. Public Law 106-337, the appropriations bill for EPA signed into law by the President on October 27, 2000, revised EPA’s statutory deadline for issuing the final arsenic drinking water standard. EPA is to issue the final arsenic regulation by June 22, 2001, one year after the proposal.”5

Health issues associated with arsenic
Some health effects related to arsenic poisoning are:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Skin cancer
  • Skin lesions/ulcers
  • Liver cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Arsenic damage to the body is irreversible.
  • Arsenic has an accumulating effect when ingested over time.

Problems around the world
Arsenic is truly a global issue with approximately 175 million people affected in over 30 countries. The arsenic problem in Asia is horrifying. People show visible lesions on their feet and hands. A resident of Heihe, a village in western Inner Mongolia, 70-year-old Wang Er’ren often feels weak and short of breath. She remains bedridden for days. On a rare sunny day, she drags herself out and sits in a neighbor’s doorway to chat with a friend. Even during these relaxed moments, Wang Er’ren is careful not to reveal her right hand, wrapped completely in a small roll of white tissue. A victim of arsenic water poisoning for more than 40 years, she says the skin on her hands and feet have been affected since she was in her 30s. Small, nail-like warts dot her palms and heels, hard and sharp enough to wear out the heels of her socks and keep her from doing much housework. And her right thumb developed an ulcer six years ago that became infected after she refused to have it amputated. “It aches almost unbearably and oozes blood with every movement,” says the strong-minded woman, who used to be the family breadwinner and head of the village women’s federation.” Wang Er’ren’s and her neighbor’s water contained 230 ppb of arsenic. Approximately 150 people in Er’ren’s village of 1,800 drink water from this well. Sixty percent of these people show signs of arsenic poisoning. A study of the village population found that from the 1960s to the 1990s, more than 90 local farmers died of cancer of the lungs, liver and bladder. “Six households perished as family members died one by one,” recalls the village chief.6

There is help for people in developing regions currently battling arsenic challenges in their water. Water For People is an organization that helps provide sustainable arsenic removal in developing countries. Through education, accessing local knowledge, and partnering with local government and nongovernmental organizations they work to provide project awareness and training for ongoing operations and maintenance around the world. Water For People utilizes local water professionals and industry specialists in their efforts to work closely with the communities it serves. The goal is to have the community invested in the project and assume ownership of its long-term operation. Water For People actively recruits new partners and solutions to help their target constituents improve their lives. For more information about Water For People and its work to provide safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and health and hygiene education in the developing world, visit the website at

US arsenic problems
The United States has its own problems with arsenic. In the past, it was not a constituent normally found in a water test report. It has just been in the last 10 years that testing started to show arsenic in areas not previously thought to have issues. In a number of states in the Northeast, an arsenic test is required as part of a well water real estate transaction.
Sahuarita Water Company (SWC), a state and federally regulated private water utility in Arizona, serves a 4.7-square-mile region including the master-planned community, Rancho

Sahuarita and Rancho Resort. The company provides drinking water to more than 12,000 residents living in more than 4,200 homes. In addition, SWC provides water to the new Marketplace and the Sahuarita Unified School District campuses in Rancho Sahuarita. SWC’s water is from three wells drilled into the aquifer system below the development and it contains arsenic just above the 10-ppb threshold.

The primary consideration for SWC was the safety of their customers—both in the quality of the drinking water and movement of oxidizing chemicals within the community. The company considered it a quality-of-life issue in Rancho Sahuarita, one of Arizona’s premier, master-planned communities, to move toxic chemicals within the community. SWC wanted no maintenance or waste hauling in any neighborhood in the community. It used a central treatment system for all three of the wells and incorporated iron oxide-based hybrid, non-backwashing media into their application to avoid backwash waste. The only chemical utilized in the system is chlorine to convert the As (III) to As (V) and for bio-control after filtration. The central treatment system is surrounded by a block wall color coordinated to match the environment and blend into the landscape, minimizing the eyesore of multiple systems throughout the community.

This project was a human-based decision, not a spreadsheet decision. SWC looked at the long-term physical and emotional well-being of their customers in planning their treatment technology and layout. Major considerations in this project revolved around what was truly best for the people and the area—not the bottom dollar. As awareness increases about the dangers of arsenic, one can only hope that moral decisions accompany financial decisions as people plan for managing their water quality.

Water source managers, be they local authorities, system owners, or homeowners, are not reckless with people’s health, though they can become isolated and out of touch. Decision-makers are often overwhelmed with streams of data and are asked to make immediate responses to complex issues. There is a tendency to dehumanize the issue and/or rationalize the severity of the risk (Granddad drank the water and he lived to a ripe old age). We must remember that lecturing and persuasive dialogue will not move people to action. People question nearly everything they hear. Thoughts, beliefs, behaviors and ideas are part of their nature. People do not change their behavior until they change their minds. As professionals, we cannot do this for them. We can show conviction, communicate information and ask thoughtful questions to help people along their way to discovery and enlightenment. In a recent needs-based sales workshop, the attendees learned to not argue a point with clients. Instead they learned to present value propositions to help people decide on a course of action. A value proposition identifies an issue or topic; it covers the possible solutions to a problem, and confronts the realities of an issue and the value of taking corrective action.

Customer: Granddad drank the water and lived well into his 70s. Why should we do anything about the problem?

Issues: Agreed, not everyone shows negative signs of arsenic poisoning. Some people just have great genes and we hope everyone drinking this water has granddad’s genetics. Some people are not as lucky. Let’s remember, arsenic doesn’t visibly harm everyone, but it does harm someone.

Solutions: There is a method for safely removing the problem from the water and that includes…

Value: It is not the people that tolerate arsenic in their water that’s at issue here. It is protecting the people who do not. Taking preventative action protects the percentage of people that are not as tough as granddad who we may wish to consider.


  1. Dartmouth College (2009). In Small Doses: Arsenic. Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program. Retrieved from
  2. Clare, S. (2010). Arsenic Poisoning: Symptoms and Treatment. Retrieved from
  3. Champ, J. (2002). Grasshopper Campaigns in Saskatchewan During the 1930s. A Report for Saskatchewan Western Development Museum’s “Winning the Prairie Gamble” 2005 Exhibit
  4. Convery, M. (2010). Arsenic in Minnesota Groundwater. Minnesota Department of Health, Well Management Section. Power Point Presentation.
  5. US EPA (2000). Proposed Revision to the Arsenic Drinking Water Standard. Retrieved from
  6. Guihua, M. (2011). Eliminating the Pain of Arsenic Poisoning. China UNICEF. Retreived October 27, 2011 from

About the author
Matthew Wirth works for Layne Christensen in Commercial Sales in the Water Technologies POE/POU Division. He is responsible for the region west of the Mississippi River. Wirth is a 31-year veteran of the water industry and an active trainer for several national organizations. He has extensive experience in light C&I, PEO and POU problem water applications. Wirth is a graduate of Concordia University in St. Paul, MN with a BA in organizational management and communications. He received his engineering training at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, SD. He can be reached via email, [email protected] or phone (319) 333-4174.


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