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Saint Mary’s department of chemistry and physics launches new project to test local well water

| Friday, January 17, 2020

Although water is one of the most abundant resources in the world, it exists on a wide spectrum of drinkability. Bottled water tends to be the safest option, while river and lake water should be considered non-potable. However, well water falls into a gray area. At times it can be consumed safely, but it can also potentially contain dangerous heavy metals.

City water is tested regularly, but testing for well water is completed much less frequently, as it must be done at the homeowner’s expense, according to a flyer distributed by the Saint Mary’s department of chemistry and physics.

This means heavy metals, such as arsenic, can build up in the water, and according to the flyer, “long term exposure can pose a significant health risk.”

The department hopes to aid Saint Mary’s students and the wider community in learning how to test their well water.

Their water-testing project began about two years ago as a community research study.

“Community research is a little challenging, because the pathway to getting a project is less obvious than with more traditional science research,” Kimberly Cossey, chemistry professor and head of the project, said in an email.

Cossey said she began at the local level of community engagement.

“The first step of any community research is meeting people and networking, so that you know what is needed,” Cossey said in the email.

Then, the group had to map out the exact procedure the department would use to test the well water.

“The next step was to determine the methods that we would use for the science part of the project,” she said in the email. “I decided to use ICP-OES (an instrument used to test water samples), which [test] not only arsenic but also other heavy metals, even in low concentrations. Thus, we could test for multiple potential contaminants at once, and give residents the results.”

Cossey and a student collaborator, senior chemistry major Katelyn Long, have begun a pilot study where students will be able to test and send in the results from their water.

This process is fairly simple, Cossey said.

“We give residents a kit that has water bottles, and instructions on how to collect their water,” she said in the email. “They run the tap for a few minutes, and then collect the water into the water bottle. Residents can test multiple locations in their home, as water is not the same from every tap (due to things like water softeners, RO [reverse-osmosis] filters, etc.)”

Next, Cossey will test the water with Long.

“They bring the samples back to Saint Mary’s, and we treat the samples with chemicals,” she said in the email. “This is necessary for testing, and also makes sure that the samples stay ‘useable’ until we can test them.”

According to Cossey, the next steps for the project involve collecting, calibrating and distributing data from the project.

“The primary goal is to decrease health risks in the community by letting people know what’s in their drinking water,” Cossey said in the email. “We don’t want anyone to be drinking water with arsenic or lead on a regular basis without realizing it.”

The project also seeks to discover local problem areas that may have issues, she said.

“We are also looking for patterns in location and time,” Cossey said. “After testing one location found to have arsenic for several months, we have found that the amount of arsenic varies. … By mapping the places where high levels are found, we can identify neighborhoods that may need more immediate testing. This way those residents can know if they should be concerned.”

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