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STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: PS1.A, ESS3.C

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 7

TEKS: 6.5A, 7.8C, 7.12B, 8.2E, E.5B, E.9A

Water Protectors

How student scientists helped ensure that their communities had safer drinking water

COURTESY OF MDI BIOLOGICAL LABORATORY

TEST RESULTS: Maine middle school students analyzed arsenic levels in water samples they collected.

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT how students collected data on arsenic levels in well water.

Last year, hundreds of middle and high school students across Maine and New Hampshire collected water from faucets in their homes. They sent the samples to Jane Disney, a biologist at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Maine. Disney leads the Data to Action project. Its goal is to get kids involved in helping their communities understand the risks of toxic arsenic (As) in well water. 

The element arsenic can leach from certain rocks into water in private wells, explains Disney. Drinking water containing even small amounts of arsenic can cause severe health problems, like impaired brain development, heart conditions, and cancer. But since arsenic is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, there’s no way to know if wells are contaminated without having them tested. 

Last year, hundreds of middle and high school students collected water samples. The water came from faucets in their homes in Maine and New Hampshire. They sent the samples to Jane Disney, a biologist at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Maine. Disney leads the Data to Action project. It deals with the problem of toxic arsenic (As) in well water. The project aims to get kids involved so they can teach their communities about the dangers.

Certain rocks contain the element arsenic. It can seep from rocks into water in private wells, explains Disney. Even small amounts of arsenic in drinking water can cause serious health problems. It can hurt brain development and cause heart conditions or cancer. But arsenic is odorless, colorless, and tasteless. No one knows if wells contain arsenic unless they’re tested. 

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A lab measured the arsenic levels in the students’ water samples. Then the teens analyzed the data. They found that 15 percent of the samples exceeded the national safety levels for arsenic. That prompted New Hampshire to make the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water less than the national level in an effort to reduce citizens’ exposure to the dangerous element. 

Disney hopes students’ data will lead to similar changes for Maine. “Student data is going to contribute to our understanding of how widespread the problem [of arsenic in drinking water] is and how seriously everybody ought to take the issue,” says Disney. 

A lab measured the arsenic in the students’ water samples. Then the teens studied the data. Fifteen percent of the samples were higher than the national safety levels for arsenic. Because of that, New Hampshire tried to reduce citizens’ contact with the dangerous element. The state lowered the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water. Now it’s less than the national level. 

Disney hopes that Maine will look at students’ data and do the same. “Student data is going to contribute to our understanding of how widespread the problem [of arsenic in drinking water] is and how seriously everybody ought to take the issue,” says Disney. 

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