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A little arsenic came with the view

Nell Ohff had a colorful comparison for the feeble stream of filtered water that trickled into her kitchen sink.

She wouldn't let me print it, so I'll just refer you to those commercials featuring the old guys who can't get a bike ride in without visiting the restroom.

You get the idea. Filling a coffee pot requires roughly a minute of pressing on the drinking fountain-style tap; rinsing pasta is impossible.

The filters are a pain in the neck and, as a permanent source of drinking water, "totally unacceptable,'' said Ohff, 66, who lives in the Garmisch Hills subdivision, south of Brooksville. "You and I are not going to be able to sell our homes at any reasonable price because of this water situation.''

Yes, Ohff and I are in this together — neighbors and two of the 202 owners of arsenic-contaminated wells in southeastern Hernando County.

Considering that arsenic is right up there with rattlesnake venom as far as infamous toxins go, you can just see prospective buyers crossing these homes off their lists.

So, of course, I'm eager to tell you it's not quite as bad as it sounds.

This became an issue two years ago mainly because the federal drinking water standard for arsenic dropped from 50 parts per billion to 10.

Most of the contaminated wells in Hernando fall between those two levels. Even at the high end, the danger is not the numb limbs or paralysis of acute poisoning, but a 1-in-100 lifetime cancer risk, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But who wants that? Nobody.

My wife and I worry every time we hear the kids taking showers, even though the state Department of Environmental Protection insists arsenic is not absorbed through the skin; we wonder about the long-term consequences of absentmindedly drinking untreated water from the bathroom tap.

The state has responded by fitting a few highly contaminated wells with $4,000 filters that purify water throughout the house. Sounds good, except they haven't worked very well.

Other houses are provided with either bottled water or the sink-mounted filters — priced at $800 — that Ohff complained about.

No, it's not a permanent solution, not if we want to sell our house in the future or sleep at night.

But, then again, it may not be the state's problem.

It absolutely should be, of course, if the contamination comes from a practice the state allowed or mandated, such as spraying arsenic-based pesticides or dipping cows in vats of arsenic solution to kill ticks.

But if arsenic shows up throughout a region, as it does in Spring Lake, it is likely there naturally; a planned state study will determine in a year or two whether this is the case.

If it is, the cost of installing filters and providing bottled water will probably fall on homeowners.

Hopefully, we can shop smarter than the state and find cheaper whole-house filters that actually work.

But we chose to move out here, away from traffic, crime and the public water supply.

The payoff is privacy, great sunsets and flocks of sandhill cranes that fly over every evening.

Expensive filters, inconvenience, worries about health and property values — that just may be the price.

A little arsenic came with the view 01/12/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 12, 2009 8:05pm]
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