Almost 20 percent of people who live near the Spring Lake area have said they will take part in a health department survey to identify the level of arsenic in their bodies.
And the number may increase in the coming weeks, following an information blitz under way by health officials.
Health Department Environmental Manager Al Gray called the initial response encouraging, especially in the early stages of the study.
The health department mailed letters to 619 addresses identified as being at higher risk of arsenic poisoning from well water.
Most residents affected live in the Spring Lake area because of prominent use of pesticides in the past from citrus groves and cattle grazing.
Gray said of 900 wells tested throughout Hernando County, 400 were identified as being higher risk.
Short-term exposure to arsenic is not considered harmful, Gray said. However, prolonged exposure, especially over 30 years, can pose a health problem.
Arsenic in drinking water has no taste or odor and cannot be detected without lab testing. Long-term ingestion of elevated levels of arsenic can increase the risk of skin cancer and cancer of the lungs, bladder, kidney, liver and prostate.
Mary Bonometti, environmental specialist with the department, has been the lead person in the study and has been busy collecting voluntary urine samples from people, following up on letters and arranging field visits.
The first set of lab results should coming in the first week of May.
“We’ve sent out letters to 619 addresses and gotten responses just shy of 18 percent, or 111, people who want to participate,” Bonometti said.
Bonometti said many associate arsenic with the old play, Arsenic and Old Lace, where two elderly spinsters administer the poison in a drop of wine and serve it to men who come a-courting.
Agatha Christie made liberal use of arsenic and other assorted poisons in her murder mysteries.
Bonometti cautioned that the potential danger from these old wells is not so bad that one sip causes death. Her concern is with the long-term damage of exposure.
Still, if the test results from urine and the water come back showing above-average traces of arsenic, those affected may want to make an appointment with their family physician to get a check-up.
And if the arsenic shows up in the water, they may want to contact the state toxicologist because their may be medical questions, she said.