The MDI Biological Laboratory receives funding to counter the arsenic threat

BAR HARBOR, MAINE – The MDI Biological Laboratory will collaborate with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an office of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, on a five-year grant from the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to improve access to safe drinking water in Maine.

Mitigating pollutants, especially arsenic, in well water is the subject of a federally funded SEPA (Science Education Partnership Award) program, which teaches data literacy to high school students by analyzing data from well water collected from their homes. The grant from Maine CDC will fund testing of 500 wells from student families in Maine in coordination with the SEPA program.

Previous SEPA testing found that water from private wells in Maine is often contaminated with high levels of natural arsenic, which can have serious adverse health effects, including cancer, heart disease, and growth and reproductive problems. The program also found that a large percentage of homeowners had not tested their wells for arsenic.

Arsenic has been classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as the environmental pollutant with the greatest impact on human health.

The grant will also fund a pilot project to develop tools to assess the program’s effectiveness in reducing environmental health risks with the goal of using it as a model for other school and community programs in Maine and the country.

“We are very grateful to the Maine CDC,” said Jane E. Disney, PhD, Director of Research Training and Director of the Community Environmental Health Laboratory at MDI Biological Laboratory and Principal Investigator in SEPA. “Their support will help us take SEPA to the next level by identifying barriers to mitigation for families who are testing their wells for environmental pollutants.”

The five-year SEPA program, which includes schools in Maine and New Hampshire, is funded by a $ 1.2 million award for the MDI Biological Laboratory from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, an institute of the National Institutes of Health.

“The SEPA program is the latest example of the long and distinguished history of the MDI biological laboratory of leadership in environmental health,” said Hermann Haller, MD, President. “The grant from Maine CDC will allow us to build on this exceptionally successful program, which, in addition to addressing the arsenic threat, helps students gain valuable experience in data literacy.”

Since the start of the SEPA program in 2018, students from 17 schools in Maine and 10 schools in New Hampshire working individually with 18 partner scientists from the Colleges and Universities of Maine and New Hampshire have analyzed more than 1,500 well water samples in collaboration with Trace Essence of Elemental Analysis in Dartmouth College. The results are shared with the Maine CDC and the NH Department of Environmental Services to help them monitor public health impacts.

Maine and New Hampshire have among the highest per capita dependence rates on private wells for drinking water in the country, at 56 percent and 46 percent, respectively, representing a total of 1.4 million people on private well water.

The public health threat posed by arsenic and other harmful pollutants to well water has been a focus of education and research at the MDI Biological Laboratory since the 2014 “Arsenic Summit” held in collaboration with Dartmouth to address approaches to reducing exposure to arsenic. The summit led to an educational program called “All About Arsenic”, which in turn led to the emergence of SEPA and now to the CDC Scholarship.

“One of the summit’s goals was to develop new programs to tackle the arsenic problem,” Disney said. “I am pleased to say that we have achieved this goal by developing a program that we hope will serve as a national model. This achievement represents the collaborative effort of many individuals and organizations with whom we have worked to improve access to safe drinking water.”

The “Data to Action” project is supported by the Science Education Partnership (SEPA) and Grant 1R25GM129796-01 from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, an institute of the National Institutes of Health.


About MDI Biological Laboratory

We aim to improve human health and the healthy period by uncovering the basic mechanisms of tissue repair, aging and regeneration, translating our discoveries for the benefit of society and developing the next generation of scientific leaders. For more information, please visit

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