News 8 Investigates

News 8 Investigates: What's in the water?

Wells in La Crosse County test positive for arsenic

News 8 Investigates: What's in the...

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - Earlier this year, the La Crosse County Health Department received a $600,000 federal grant to expand well water testing for private well owners.

What officials have been finding could have a significant impact on your health.

Arsenic in private wells is becoming a growing concern for officials in La Crosse County.

It's an element that is naturally occurring in nature. The element has no taste or smell, making it impossible to determine if it's in water without a test.

Arsenic was first discovered in Wisconsin groundwater in 1989.

The Fox Valley region in the state has been hit particularly hard by this contaminant, but La Crosse County has seen the contaminant as well.

Health standards say anything above 10 parts per billion (ppb) could be hazardous to your health. Parts of La Crosse County are measuring arsenic levels 30 times above that standard.

Health officials explain, however, there is not enough conclusive data to determine the extent of the problem.

Low-level exposure to arsenic over a long period of time can have a significant impact on someone's health.

"A lot of things we see manifest start in the skin first. We'll see funny little bumps, and funny little sores, and thickening of the skin on the hands and feet," Dr. Kimberly Lansing of Gundersen Health System said. "Probably some of the biggest concerns we have with exposure to arsenic over long-term are more cancer-related. Specifically, skin cancer, bladder cancer, and lung cancer are probably the most common cancers we see associated with more chronic exposure to arsenic."

Because of concerns over property values, owners of those wells who have tested positive for arsenic declined to News 8.

However, the La Crosse Realty Association said the owners of those homes would have to disclose their findings to potential buyers, so future homeowners would be safe from arsenic if the contaminant is found and treated.

Health officials are concerned about the well owners who haven't tested their water for arsenic and who may not know that they have this potentially dangerous element in their water.

In a small room in the town of Farmington in rural La Crosse County, Bradley Walker is quietly listening to a presentation from the health department.

"We saw the meeting in the paper tonight, and we decided to come," Walker said.

What he's hearing is an alarming discovery of contaminants in private wells, including arsenic.

"I think a lot of these wells are probably old. They've had no maintenance done on them, and they haven't been tested, or they haven't been tested for 20 or 30 years," Walker said.

Walker has had his water tested for nitrate and bacteria before, but never for arsenic.

He says this meeting is convincing him to have his water tested again.

"I want to do some further testing on the well water. I want to do a pH, metal panel, and I'll test for bacteria again," Walker said.

Residents like Walker are who the La Crosse County Health Department is trying to convince to test their private wells through their new federal grant.

"Right now, there's no regulation that dictates to people that they have to test their water," Jim Steinhoff, La Crosse County Health Department's laboratory director said. "It's really up to the well owner to decide what kind of monitoring they want to do."

The La Crosse County Health Department estimates only around 600 out of 8,000 private wells have been tested for arsenic in the county.

"About 2.5 percent of those samples have exceeded what's considered the safe level of arsenic in water," Steinhoff said.

While that doesn't sound like much, officials say the level of arsenic found in those wells is staggering.

"We've seen readings as high as 300 (ppb). So 30 times what's considered an acceptable amount," Steinhoff said. "When I hear 300 or 350, that's a major, major problem that will affect a person's health."

County health officials say those levels appeared in the southern part of La Crosse County in the townships of Shelby, Greenfield, and Washington.

"Once we started seeing wells show up with these metals, it really made us ponder, what's out there that we don't know about?" Steinhoff said.

The health department in La Crosse has been able to test for nitrates and bacteria since for several years, but the county had to send their test samples to labs outside of La Crosse for arsenic and other contaminants.

But through the grant, the department is making it possible to test right here in La Crosse through the purchase of an atomic absorption spectrometer, which allows for expanded testing.

"We'll be able to measure concentrations down to parts per billion, which is extremely small," Steinhoff said.

The county is also hoping to use the federal grant to create a map, showing the extent of the arsenic problem.

To create the data for the map, the health department is using meetings, like the one in the town of Farmington to convey their message.

"Without the grant, we would probably be still back where we were," Steinhoff said.

Doctors at Gundersen say it is essential for all private well owners to test their water.

"Anybody that's buying a new home, or having a new baby, or has young children, I recommend to get your water tested," Lansing said.

She's glad the county is educating the public on the importance of testing for arsenic.

"It's nice to know that the county may be expanding some of their testing, because I want my family to be safe, and then if I have beef cattle, and I want to sell my beef cattle, I want my beef cattle to be OK for people to consume them," Lansing said.

She stresses that once a problem is discovered; it can most likely be solved with a filtration system.

"We have several filter systems at the point of entry, where the well water comes into the house that filter there," Lansing said. "We have secondary filtration system, which is at our sink, where we have a reverse osmosis system there, where it filters out things like nitrates and arsenic."

For Walker, the public information meeting has convinced him to once again to test his water.

"Peace of mind more than anything else," Walker said. "I just want to be sure there's nothing there."

And health officials hope others will soon do the same.

"We really don't know what's in the water, until it's tested," Steinhoff said.
Because of the grant, the health department can now test for arsenic, lead, iron as well as many other elements.

The cost to test arsenic is $29, testing nitrate is $25, and a full metal scan will cost $65.

Cities are currently required by law to keep levels for arsenic and other elements below the federal standard.

According to the city of La Crosse, the 2015 water report shows that the city had levels of arsenic at 4 ppb, which is below the health standard.

Numbers from 2010 show the number was at 0.6 ppb.

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