Residents, health officials tackle arsenic in North County water

Grant being pursued to study where, why residents are at greatest risk

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Learn More

For more information about arsenic:

Visit EPA arsenic research.

Contact Clark County Public Health at 360-397-8000.

Or find Addy Lab, Clark County’s only drinking water testing lab, at Addy Lab.

AMBOY -- The result wasn’t good. But it wasn’t exactly a surprise, either.

When Gordon Brooks first confirmed high levels of arsenic in the well water at his north Clark County home, he didn’t consider it an urgent matter. He and his wife worked around it initially, mostly relying on bottled water. They figured they’d install a filtration system eventually. But then some extra motivation arrived last fall.

Brooks’ daughter and her husband moved in. And with them came Laila, Brooks’ infant granddaughter. Suddenly, fixing the arsenic problem jumped up the home improvement priority list.

“It’s going to affect her the rest of her life,” said Brooks, who is battalion chief of Clark County Fire District 10.

High levels of arsenic are generally more prevalent in north Clark County, public health officials say. The odorless, colorless semi-metal can cause skin damage, plus circulatory and gastrointestinal problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s also been linked to various forms of cancer after long-term exposure.

It’s a risk Clark County Public Health has studied in the past, and hopes to soon learn more about, said environmental health program manager Aaron Henderson. The county this year plans to go after a state grant of up to $30,000. That money would pay for further study, and help the county get a better handle on where -- and why -- Clark County residents are at greater risk.

Arsenic occurs naturally, and its prevalence in north county may be caused by a number of factors, Henderson said. The area’s geology, sediments and water sources likely all play a role. Locally, wells from one property to the next may not get the same arsenic reading, depending on their depth and what’s in the ground at each location.

The EPA considers 10 parts per billion the safe standard for arsenic in drinking water. That number took effect in 2002, after the agency decided to lower its earlier standard of 50 parts per billion.

For the county, education is an ongoing effort, Henderson said.

“Arsenic is a pretty scary word,” he said. “But there’s also treatment options out there.”

Brooks tested his own well even before moving into his home outside Amboy last spring. The result confirmed what he suspected: an arsenic level of more than twice the EPA standard.

Brooks bought the home out of foreclosure, and realized there wasn’t much maintenance happening while it was bank-owned. With that gap between him and the previous owner, Brooks simply put the water system on his checklist going in.

“We came into it knowing that we had some things we had to do,” Brooks said. “That was one of them.”

About a month ago, Brooks got his new filtration system up and running, contained within a simple black cylinder in his garage. He shopped around -- and found systems cost as much as $7,500 -- before choosing a Yacolt company for the installation. Brooks said his own system cost about $2,900.

The system has done the job. Brooks said the arsenic in his water is now below detectable levels -- essentially zero.

“We have excellent water,” he said.

The only drinking water lab in Clark County is Vancouver’s Addy Lab, which handles some two dozen residential samples a week, said co-owner Tom Newman. A single test costs a little more than $30 to process, he said.

Not all of Brooks’ neighbors in north Clark County have tested their water for arsenic, he said. Some simply don’t seem interested, he said.

As local officials learn more about Clark County’s landscape and risks, the county hopes to engage residents as part of that process, Henderson said. It’s a conversation with high stakes, he added.

“It’s a really important topic in terms of property values and people’s health,” Henderson said. “Those are big issues.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com