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Outagamie County One Of Wisconsin's Arsenic Hotspots

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Green Bay Press Gazette 2005
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Bradley Burmeister (right) with his high school science teacher Dennis Rohr.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism issued a report on dangerous levels of arsenic in Wisconsin's water. Bradley Burmeister grew up in one of the most affected areas - Outagamie County.

His family lives two miles outside Seymour, Wisconsin – population 3,000, give or take.

Being rural residents, the family dug its own well to handle water needs. Burmeister says they were sure it contained iron. “Because our clothes typically turned yellow, which absolutely drove my mother nuts. I think there was sulphur in it too – it didn’t smell the greatest either,” he says.

But it wasn’t until 2003, during his sophomore year that Burmeister learned more. His high school science teacher, who had studied groundwater at UW-Green Bay, taught the class about the local aquifer that 20,000 private wells tapped into for water – including the Burmeister family.

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Credit S Bence
Bradley Burmeister

The aquifer is called St. Peter Sandstone. It contains high concentrations of sulfide minerals. Expose them to oxygen, and they can break down into arsenic.

Seymour Community High School students launched a testing project.

“Dennis Rohr was our science teacher actually got grant money for us to helped pay for us to do some lab testing, where we tested for nitrates and other contaminants and then the arsenic was actually a send-out lab, because that was little more advanced than what high school students could do to a certain level accuracy,” Burmeister says.

The students reached out to the community. “We had an article in the Seymour newspaper and invited anyone to bring water in from their homes, " Burmeister added, "and we provided them with instructions and then with the results when we got the testing back."

The students sampled nearly 100 wells. One of the first was the Burmeister’s. The results were stunning.

“I don’t remember the exact amount, but it was several hundred if not 1,000 parts per billion of arsenic, and I think the EPA standard is about 10 parts per billion, so, over 100 times,” Burmeister says.

Actually, the well soared 165 times above the federal health standard.

Just two years earlier, the EPA had tightened the standard because of growing evidence that arsenic has links to cancer and cardiovascular disease. And a study in Maine has found a connection between even lower levels of arsenic and impacts on children’s IQs.

Some private well owners in Wisconsin don’t know their water is contaminated. The statewide estimate is that only 16 percent test their wells annually.

For those who do discover high arsenic levels, there are different ways to handle the problem. Some filter their water or dig a deeper well; while others, like Bradley Burmeister’s family, drink bottled water.

“I believe the CDC says showering in arsenic contaminated water is safe, and so to this day, when I visit my family, we shower in the water, but we don’t drink it, we don’t cook with it, We do brush our teeth with it, but it’s a very small amount at that point, so it should be so it should safe, he says.

Burmeister just visits his family these days. He graduated from Seymour Community High School in 2006 and became the first member of his family to attend college.

He’s midway through an emergency medicine residency at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

“Everything really pointed me into going into medicine. I seem to really enjoy the science part of things and then applying that to making people feel better,” he says

And every time he takes a drink of water, Burmeister says he thinks about where it came from.

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