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Too Much Arsenic

WERC helps meet challenge of new EPA standards
by Therese Shakra

Engineering professor Fernando Cadena, right, and graduate student, Frank Jurado lll, work together in a chemistry lab as part of a new WERC project demonstration.

The semi-metallic element arsenic is odorless, tasteless and has a long infamous history affiliated with wicked intentions. “Arsenic and Old Lace,” a dark comedy written by American playwright Joseph Kesselring, makes light of two women murdering men with arsenic, while the Renaissance Italian family of Borgias, dubbed “the first crime family,” used the poison as a select means for political assassinations.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knows that arsenic, a carcinogen and known toxin, also can be harmful as a naturally occurring substance. Consequently, Jan. 23, 2006, became the deadline by which the arsenic standard for drinking water was lowered from 50 to 10 parts per billion to protect U.S. consumers from the effects of chronic exposure to arsenic.

Arseniasis, or chronic arsenic poisoning, is an emerging epidemic in Asia, according to a 2002 American Heart Association report. Arsenic-removal technologies are being studied to resolve an environmental crisis in Bangladesh, where arsenic-polluted wells are slowly poisoning and killing hundreds of thousands of people.

The United States is fortunate to have lower levels of naturally occurring arsenic contamination. The Southwest is one of two areas where levels of naturally occurring arsenic exceed the new Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL).

According to the EPA, non-cancer effects can include nausea, numbness in extremities, partial paralysis and blindness. Arsenic is linked to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver and prostate.

WERC: A Consortium for Environmental Education and Technology Development, administered through the New Mexico State University College of Engineering, is pursuing arsenic-removal developments in several ways. It is part of the Arsenic Water Technology Partnership (AWTP) in collaboration with the American Water Works Association Research Foundation (AwwaRF) and the Sandia National Laboratories Outreach Program. It funds research of innovative arsenic-removal and disposal methods. And it provides environmental education and fellowship programs for students, training environmental stewards now affiliated with arsenic-removal pilot projects and demonstration sites in New Mexico.

The revised arsenic standard of 10 ppb will significantly affect an estimated 4,000 U.S. water systems, the majority of which are small and rural communities (serving less than 3,300 people). Nationwide, annualized compliance cost estimates range from $195 million to $675 million a year.

The AWTP program, started in 2003, is a multi-year effort that moves technologies from the bench-scale to demonstration, with assistance provided to utilities on implementation. This is crucial to apply the most cost-effective solutions to arsenic treatment methods for those serving small, rural communities and Indian tribes. After arsenic-related solutions are in place, the partnership can address additional emerging contaminants and provide similar community education workshops around the state regarding other harmful substances.

U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., has been instrumental in creating the cuttingedge program and securing funding for the partnership from Congress.

“This kind of research resulting from WERC’s annual Design Contest is precisely the objective of the WERC program,” said Abbas Ghassemi, executive director of WERC. “Innovative research and development applications that address specific environmental and human health issues are exactly what was envisioned when the partnership was created through the senator’s leadership.”

The second solution-oriented avenue WERC pursues is funding research of innovative methods for mandated arsenic removal and disposal. A team of NMSU researchers led by Assistant Professor Shuguang Deng collected breakthrough data on a textured material ideal for removing arsenic in a cost-effective manner. Ultimately, the research team hopes their arsenic adsorption technology is selected for a larger pilot study and deployment to communities.

A drawing illustrating tap water contaminated by arsenic

Naturally occurring arsenic contamination of drinking water has created an environmental crisis in Bangladesh and is an emerging epidemic in Asia.

Karen Nichols, secretary-treasurer of Desert Sands Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association near Anthony, N.M., is intimately familiar with the problem of arsenic and the economic hardship it poses to small rural systems. Nichols likes the adsorbent technology because of its simplicity. An equally critical factor for Desert Sands is cost. Nichols wants to find the cheapest, simplest and most reasonable solution for the low-income Las Palmeras area.

“If enough people can’t afford to pay the increased costs to cover the new rules, we’ll have to turn the water off, forcing residents to use their small wells,” she said. “This would create even more problems. The solution may be a regional community partnership to share in the cost and possibly build a surface water treatment plant.”

Methods of disposal go hand in hand with arsenic removal. WERC has awarded seed grant funds to NMSU Professor April Ulery for a research proposal titled “Uranyl Arsenate Compounds: A Novel Approach to Arsenic Waste Disposal.” The work will support a student and analytical testing.

Student research is a critical component of WERC’s environmental education programs. Richard Aguilar, who achieved an NMSU bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1995 and a master’s degree in environmental engineering in1997, is now environmental services manager for the city of Carlsbad. Aguilar guides the continuous testing and monitoring of the city’s Environmental Services Laboratory to ensure compliance with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) issued by the EPA.

“We’re fortunate to have two water systems here because we can blend their usage,” he said. “With one well containing 15 ppb of arsenic and the other well containing 1 pbb, we can run the 1 pbb system 18 hours a day and the other system for the remaining 6 hours.”

Tina Meyers, senior environmental engineer for the Albuquerque Area Indian Health Service, was key in designing the purification system for the Pueblo of Jemez. Meyers completed her undergraduate degree in civil engineering and earned a master’s in environmental engineering from NMSU. The WERC graduate said the filtronics/filtration system for arsenic removal on the Jemez Pueblo removed arsenic before the new EPA regulation was in place.

The WERC consortium consists of NMSU, the University of New Mexico, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Diné College and Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories. For more information about WERC, visit www.werc.net or call (505) 646-2038.

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