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Campus News
University of New Mexico experts work to solve regional water issues
August 16, 2004

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UNM engineer takes lead in arsenic removal

By Greg Johnston

Prof. Bruce Thomson and gradute student Jeremy Anderson conduct an arsenic removal test. Photo by Greg Johnston.

As New Mexico gears up to meet stringent federal regulations on arsenic in community water supplies, a UNM researcher is playing a lead role. Bruce Thomson, regents’ professor in civil engineering, is testing materials used to reduce arsenic levels. “One question everyone wants to know is, is there some technology that is going to be effective and extraordinarily cheap?” Thomson asks.

Thomson says there is no silver bullet, but the cost of treating community water supplies may decrease by 30 to 40 percent.

Environmental Protection Agency standards, effective January 2006, will impact nearly 115 communities statewide. Nationwide arsenic levels will also need to be reduced to comply with regulations allowing no more than 50 to 100 micrograms of arsenic per liter.

Currently, three materials to reduce arsenic are being considered in New Mexico. One is iron-based and under development at Sandia National Laboratories.

It will cost roughly $400 million to remove arsenic in the state, according to a student research project. Operating costs will add another $15 to $20 million per year. “We’re trying to identify simpler, less expensive solutions for smaller communities like Bernalillo, San Ysidro and Columbus,” Thomson says.

Despite the attention, Thomson says that there have been no measurable negative health effects reported due to high arsenic levels in the United States. “People say, maybe we should drink bottled water. My contention is that tap water is safer because it is subject to more stringent regulations. If you want to improve the taste, put a filter on the tap,” he says.

Because of its prominent use in history as a poison of emperors and kings, people believe arsenic is extraordinarily toxic, when in fact the low levels occuring naturally in some drinking water have never been shown to cause disease. Thomson grinned, adding, “My contention is that in 1942, if Joseph Kesselring had written a play and named it ‘Thalium and Old Lace,’ we wouldn’t have this problem today.”