BROOKSVILLE — Neighbors on Griffin Road were getting their well water tested for arsenic, so Rod and Belinda Chapnick figured they needed to do the same.
The couple stood outside their home late last week and watched Mark Springer, an environmental specialist with the Hernando County Health Department, take a sample from their well.
The Chapnicks, who won't know for several weeks whether there is a high level of arsenic in their drinking water, decided to have the test done after their neighbors' water turned up positive.
"We might as well see what's going on," Belinda Chapnick said as Springer filled a small plastic test bottle. "Either way, it's best to know."
Until recently, tests were offered by the state Department of Environmental Protection only to those who live within a half-mile of a known positive site. Those who wanted their water tested just in case had to pay a private company.
But now, for $65, the Health Department will test wells anywhere in the county.
In the past year, more than 300 wells in Hernando County have been tested for the toxic metal. Just over 100 have tested positive, or above the 10 parts per billion level deemed safe by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Results around the county range just above the safe level to one well that recorded a 165- parts-per-billion score. Contaminated wells are mostly located in the eastern part of the county.
"There are a lot of people who are still concerned even though they're not close to a known positive" site, said Al Gray, environmental manager with the Hernando County Health Department.
The new process helps streamline data collection, Gray explained. Before, the department would have had to ask for the test results from private companies and then retest the water for record-keeping. Now the results are automatically entered into the department database.
Though arsenic can occur naturally in soil, health officials suspect that the root cause is ranchers and farmers who used arsenic many years ago to kill insects. Farmers once sprayed arsenic-laden pesticides in orange groves, while ranchers routinely walked cattle through "dipping vats" that were dug into the earth, then filled with an arsenic solution to kill ticks.
As he entered GPS coordinates into a handheld device to add the Chapnicks' well to the Health Department's mapping system, Springer said that one of the problems is figuring out how to identify the old vats.
Decades old, at the time the vats were simply known by names like "Bucks Pond." Most of the ranchers who would know where the vats were dugs have long since died.
"But there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it," he said of the location of the contaminated water wells. "Deep, shallow, old, new, it doesn't seem to matter. Either you got it or you don't. It's disturbing."
Residents with unsafe levels of arsenic in their water are eligible for filters, paid for by the DEP. Bottled drinking water has also been supplied to families while they wait for the filters to be installed.
The Health Department has cautioned residents that positive test results don't necessarily mean an acute or immediate health risk. Concern lies primarily in long-term exposure to arsenic, over about 70 years.
"Our main concern is to protect public health," Gray said. "So we're taking action when we need to. We'll keep going until it stops."
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432.