La Crosse County Health department lab tech Stephanie Nicklay places water samples in the atomic absorption spectrometer while running a calibration test for arsenic. The county purchased the $51,000 spectrometer as part of an effort to promote more private well testing in La Crosse County and four surrounding counties. The county won a grant from the Centers for Disease Control Safe Water Program that could total $659,000 if it is renewed for the next four years.

The La Crosse County Health Department is about to launch a campaign to get more people to test their private well water, with four surrounding counties joining in. The county won a highly competitive grant from the Centers for Disease Control’s Safe Water Program, which provided $131,853 for the first year and could bring in $659,000 total if the county wins renewal each year for the next four.

“This is one of the bigger grants the department has ever received,” said Jim Steinhoff, who manages the county health department’s lab operation. Only four other county health departments in the country were awarded these CDC grants.

The grant was given to help La Crosse and surrounding counties (Trempealeau, Jackson, Monroe and Vernon) promote public awareness about how and when to test wells; how to interpret lab results; how to protect well water from contaminants; and where to find more information and resources when there is a problem.

The program will focus on contamination of private wells and small water systems by coliform bacteria, nitrate and arsenic.

Although Steinhoff is the one who gave the report on the grant to the La Crosse County Board this week, he said his role has been more on the implementation end. Most of the credit, he said should go to Al Bliss and Paula Silha of the county’s Health Education Department.

“He’s a master grant writer,” Steinhoff said of Bliss.

Bliss said it was definitely a team effort to win the grant and deflected credit back on Steinhoff. “I have a way with words but he had all the technical jargon,” Bliss said.

Surprisingly high levels of arsenic in some private wells in Shelby and Greenfield were a big reason the county pursued the grant. At least one well tested at 20 times the level of arsenic considered safe in drinking water.

Arsenic exposure is linked to bladder, liver, lung and skin cancers in adults, and children who are exposed to arsenic have an increased risk of lung cancer and respiratory problems later in life. It’s estimated that arsenic annual contributes to 1,000 deaths.

Most arsenic in drinking water comes from underground deposits of the metal, but there have been cases where it has migrated to the groundwater in former apple orchards, where arsenic was used as an insecticide into the 1950s.

Steinhoff said naturally occurring deposits of arsenic are randomly scattered. “Arsenic is hit and miss,” he said. “That’s kind of what makes it troubling, too. We’re not sure what’s out there.”

With the grant, Steinoff hopes to establish a map that shows where high arsenic levels have been detected in La Crosse County and the surrounding counties.

A large part of the first year’s grant was spent on purchasing an atomic absorption spectrometer, which can test for arsenic, lead and other metals in water samples. Grant money also was used for staff training, which is almost complete.

The atomic absorption spectrometer, which cost $51,000, heats a small sample of water (20 microliters) to 3,000 degrees, at which point different wavelengths of light can be run through the sample, depending on what material the test is trying to detect. The sample is carried into the testing chamber by argon, an inert gas.

In addition to arsenic, the county’s well-testing campaign also will focus on nitrate and coliform bacteria. La Crosse County has been doing nitrate testing for about 40 years, while testing for coliform bacteria goes back 76 years, but the percentage of well owners getting their water tested for these is still far too low, from the county’s perspective.

While well-testing goes back decades in La Crosse County, an alarmingly small percentage of people get their wells annually tested, Bliss said. The county has about 7,000 private wells, but the county only gets about 1,100 samples to test per year.

Ideally, Bliss said, well owners should be testing annually for coliform and nitrate, and should get annual tests for arsenic if an initial test indicates levels of 5 parts per billion (the unsafe threshold is 10 ppb).

With in-house testing for metals, the county can turn around results a lot more quickly than the week to 10 days it takes when samples are shipped to an independent lab. In-house testing also will save well owners money. The county now charges $46 for a water sample to be tested for arsenic, for example, but if the county board approves the department’s recommended new fee structure, the cost this summer will be $29.

The county health department lab, which also does beach and pool water testing and drug testing for Justice Sanctions, has only three staff — Stephanie Nicklay, Alana Clements and Sue Schreiner — all three of whom will be certified to use the new spectrometer that tests for metals. Between the three technicians, the lab will have the equivalent of 2.2 full-time workers, up a bit less than four hours a week, thanks to the grant.

Steinhoff said the staff should be able to handle a big increase in samples to test. “I feel we’re quite efficient with our practices,” he said. Then again, he added, “we’re hoping we’ll be overwhelmed.”

The public education campaign is a key element of the grant program, and that will be coordinated with the surrounding counties. The education part is important because there’s not only a lack of water-safety knowledge among segments of the public, but there’s also plenty of misinformation floating around on the internet. “We want to provide people with science-based information,” Steinhoff said.

The county will roll out a multi-faceted education campaign this summer, including broadcast and print advertising, public information meetings, direct mailings and social media. Also this summer, the county will be ready to begin conducting arsenic and lead water testing, after the lab has been certified by the Department of Natural Resources.

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Entertainment and county government reporter

Randy Erickson covers arts and entertainment and county government for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at 608-791-8219 or randy.erickson@lee.net.

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