Penn State's drinking water testing progam can help with testing for arsenic. Kits like this are available at county Extension offices statewide.(Photo: Bryan Swistock, Penn State)
Elevated levels of arsenic occur sporadically in groundwater across Pennsylvania from both natural sources and man's activities. In drinking water, arsenic is odorless and tasteless and has been shown to cause serious health issues including skin lesions, circulatory problems, and nervous system disorders. It has also been associated with development of diabetes while prolonged exposure can cause skin, bladder, lung, and prostate cancer. Because of these serious health effects, arsenic has a federal and state drinking water standard 10 μg/L or 0.01 mg/L. Data from the Penn State water lab along with research by Penn State and the U.S. Geological Survey have found that between 2% and 6% of private water wells and springs in Pennsylvania contain arsenic levels above the current drinking water standard.
Because arsenic has no obvious tastes, stains or odors in water, homeowners are often unaware of its presence until they test their water. Unfortunately, data from the Penn State Agricultural Analytical Services Laboratory over the past 11 years shows that only about 20% of homeowners select arsenic to be tested in their drinking water. If you are the customer of a public water supply, keep in mind that testing and treatment of arsenic (if necessary) is done by the public water supplier.
Water testing for arsenic should be done by a state accredited water testing lab. There are dozens of accredited labs across Pennsylvania including the Penn State Agricultural Analytical Services Lab. Water testing kits from the Penn State lab are available at most county Extension offices or directly from the lab. A listing of other accredited labs can be found on the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection website (select the “Quick-Reference Accredited Drinking Water Laboratories List” link). The cost for an arsenic test is typically around $20 or $30.
If elevated levels of arsenic are found in drinking water, it can be easily treated using reverse osmosis, distillation, ion exchange, or various types of iron or alumina filters. In some cases, pre-treatment of the water by oxidation is needed to improve the removal efficiency of these treatment devices.
For more information on the occurrence, testing and treatment of arsenic in water wells, visit the Penn State Extension article.