What do King George the III of Great Britain, Napoleon Bonaparte, Simón Bolivar and Emperor Guangxu of China have in common? Each of these historical rulers died at the hands of arsenic poisoning. While arsenic may seem like an arcane health threat, it is relatively common in groundwater of Maritime provinces due to the region’s geological history. A public audience learned about this health threat last Thursday at a free lecture in the Avard Dixon building given by Cliff Stanley, a professor of Geochemistry at Acadia University and the president of the Atlantic Geoscience Society.
The lecture was the inaugural event of the Atlantic Geoscience Society 41st Colloquium, a conference held on the Mount Allison campus and attended by over 100 academics, students, government agents and professionals who work in the earth sciences. This year’s conference was held in memory of Laing Ferguson, former head of Mount Allison’s geology department from 1973 to 1995. Ferguson passed away last year.
“It was interesting to get a different perspective, because we don’t have a geology department anymore,” said Laura Steeves, a third year student and one of the several dozen members of the audience, “so it was a good choice of guest speaker.”
The talk was coordinated by Melissa Grey, adjunct professor of geography and environment at Mount Allison and the curator of palaeontology at Joggins Fossil Cliffs. Grey sits on the executive council of the Atlantic Geoscience Society.
Stanley outlined the geological, chemical and biological origins of arsenic in drinking water. He talked mainly about arsenic’s geological origins in Nova Scotia, since it was where most of his intended audience was located, but he discussed arsenic in New Brunswick as well.
Most of the arsenic in Nova Scotia comes from the Meguma Terrane in the province’s south, a landscape that originated in Africa and stuck to North America as the continents separated millions of years ago. It originated chemically in ocean sediments, when this landscape was below sea level. Eventually these sediments became metamorphic rocks, which concentrated their arsenic levels. Groundwater that reaches these rocks can absorb the element, making it available to drink. Soils in the atlantic provinces can also boast dangerous levels of arsenic. Arsenic in these soils can be inhaled if walked or driven upon.
Arsenic also occurs in relatively high levels in New Brunswick groundwater. Areas of high concentrations include Fredericton and the St. John River Valley.
Groundwater arsenic is of greatest concern to homes which use water from wells. Municipalities in high arsenic areas treat their water to safely consumable levels.
The Canadian Drinking Water guidelines set 0.01 milligrams per litre of arsenic as the maximum acceptable concentration for drinking water. Arsenic cannot be smelled or tasted in water and must be detected through chemical tests. The Government of New Brunswick recommends homeowners with wells to test their water every two years. Tests can range in price from $15 to $230 and can be contracted through either provincial or private water laboratories.
While arsenic is toxic, Stanley emphasized that it takes years to decades of consuming water with high levels of arsenic for it to have an impact on health. He encouraged anyone who drinks well water to test their wells, but said it is not as urgent as it might sound.
“I’m not attempting to alarm people,” said Stanley, “I’m just here to give you some background on arsenic.”