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The trouble with arsenic

High arsenic levels in a number of Whidbey Island wells could have some water customers paying higher bills in the future if they want the contaminant removed.

But the test of a simple device on one South Whidbey well this week might give hope to people on small water systems who don't have thousands of dollars to solve an arsenic problem.

Since early this year, when the federal government lowered the arsenic standard for drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 10, the state's Department of Heath has been paying close attention to which and how many wells are over the limit.

According to a map published online by the health department (www.doh.wa.gov/ehp/dw/Images/arsenic-ab.jpg), about 120 of the state's 4,200 wells in unincorporated areas have arsenic levels that exceed the new federal standard. Ingestion of high levels of arsenic have been linked to damage to kidneys, blood vessels, nerves and skin, and is thought to be a carcinogen.

In deeper trouble than any area of the state is Whidbey Island, which shows the highest density of arsenic violations amongst the area's approximately 1,000 wells.

"It looks like a shotgun blast pointed right at Whidbey Island," said South Whidbey water system manager Andy Campbell.

One of the wells Campbell maintains, the Cascade Water System, tested will over the federal limit for arsenic this spring at 32 parts per billion.

That well, which supplies 16 View Road area homes near Langley with water, brought a University of Washington graduate student and a water scientist to the island Wednesday to find out if they could solve the problem economically. Using a small electrical device, student Jaeshin Kim and Sid Hendrickson, the manager of the water services lab for the Bellevue engineering company HDR, spent the afternoon oxidizing a chemical in the water called arsenite -- a form of arsenic.

Though the two men have yet to complete tests on the water samples they took this week, Kim and Hendrickson said that if the device proves to be effective, taking arsenic out of water could be as easy as buying a good water softener. And it could be as inexpensive as a few hundred or thousand dollars for the hardware and a monthly electricity cost of running a few lightbulbs round the clock.

"This system is simple and easy to operate," Hendrickson. "It would also be simple to manufacture."

Kim cautioned that his device does not remove arsenite from the water. It converts it into arsenate, a form of arsenic that is easily filtered from water.

Wednesday's tests will tell Kim and Hendrickson under what conditions the oxidation device works best. Once they have that information, they plan to return to the Cascade View well head and hook the device up for a week-long test. If that test proves effective, Hendrickson said his company may begin manufacturing the device. He said if the market is there for such a product, it may take only a few months to get it to market.

Starting this July, water systems that tested in violation of the new arsenic standard had to begin warning of that in publications sent out to water customers. The state Department of Health is requiring all water systems to test for the chemical by Sept. 30.

Campbell said he expects the federal government to require water systems with arsenic violations to do more than just warn customers. He said water systems will probably choose to filter their water when possible, or will drill new wells if necessary. Filtration for water systems without treatment plants can run in the tens of thousands of dollars, he said.

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