Here’s how to reduce the risk of cancer if you have arsenic in your well water

A Memorial University researcher is urging well owners in Newfoundland to make lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of disease caused by arsenic exposure.

Atanu Sarkar, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine, says years or decades of drinking water contaminated by arsenic increases the risk of several cancers — including kidney, liver and lung cancer — due to epigenetic changes that occur during long-term exposure.

“They’re more prone to have cancer in [the] future,” Sarkar said.

“The only way they can remain healthy the rest of their lives [is] if they follow a healthy lifestyle.”

It’s not clear how many people on private wells across the island may be drinking water that contains dangerous levels of the mineral, but Sarkar has identified hot spots for arsenic, including in the Cormack and New World Island regions.

As CBC reported last month, some well owners in Moreton’s Harbour had arsenic levels many times higher than the maximum allowable limit set by Health Canada. One family’s tap water had 80 times more arsenic than is considered safe.

Atanu Sarkar, an associate professor at Memorial University, says widespread mineral testing is the first step to reducing the public health risks of arsenic. (CBC)

Sarkar, who analyzed cancer data in the community, suggests Moreton’s Harbour has 25 per cent more cancer diagnoses compared to nearby communities on public water systems. Sarkar suspects the surplus of disease is at least partially caused by the contamination in residents’ private wells.

Although residents there had their water tested six years ago, it’s not just adults who should worry, he adds. Babies born to mothers who drank arsenic-laden water are also at risk.

“Arsenic can extensively cross the placenta and affect the fetus very badly,” Sarkar said. “And that causes a lot of fetal chromosomal changes…. They’re more prone to have disease in the later part of their life.”

Quitting smoking, exercising, eating fresh vegetables and staying away from processed foods will decrease the risks of cancer for those who’ve been exposed, however.

Taking those precautions would reduce the cancer risk level to “almost normal,” he said. 

N.L. hands out free test kits

Days after CBC’s arsenic report in December, the provincial government announced it would supply 2,000 free mineral test kits to well owners as part of a groundwater study.

Private mineral testing can cost several hundred dollars, and well drilling companies aren’t mandated to offer those tests.

A spokesperson for the Department of Environment said the project had been in the works for several months and “was planned based on the need for baseline data collection on naturally occurring contaminants in groundwater.”

The spokesperson said the endeavour will cost the government $12 per test, with chemical analysis done at a public laboratory in St. John’s.

A hunk of yellow rock
Arsenic occurs naturally in bedrock across Newfoundland, and can leach into groundwater. Contaminated water has no taste, colour or smell. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Sarkar said the survey is a start — but fails to cover the province’s almost 40,000 private wells.

Identifying contaminated water sources and switching to clean water is the first step to preventing deaths, he said, and will improve any skin lesions or respiratory symptoms caused by long-term arsenic exposure. 

It would also prevent that water from being used to grow vegetables, which contaminates both the food and nearby soil.

Testing, he said, should be widespread.

“They have a system in place. They are already collecting public water and sending it … to a lab,” he said.

Private water samples from rural communities across the province could be analyzed at the same time, he suggested, and tested for a broad range of toxins, such as lead or mercury.

“We have 40,000 wells across the province and no idea how that water is, quality-wise,” he said.

“It’s a missed opportunity. Let’s have a map … and get a picture of the whole province.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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