BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. -- Inspectors found high concentrations of arsenic in the groundwater under the Boynton Beach city golf course this summer, according to a report by an environmental contractor.
Now state regulators are investigating whether arsenic is spreading underneath nearby residential areas. So far no evidence suggests it has, said a specialist at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
A recent study by a Bartow-based company discovered levels of the cancer-causing poison that were 46 times the federal and state standards for groundwater arsenic concentrations in one of the sample wells it tested. In another well, the levels were 15 times higher.
"We're looking to ensure that arsenic is not migrating off-site to any of the neighboring residential properties," said Erik Schmitt, an environmental specialist with the DEP in West Palm Beach. He called the levels underneath those two wells "quite high."
The arsenic poses no danger to any residents, he said, and no private wells were impacted by the readings discovered at The Links at Boynton Beach, the public course at 8020 Jog Road. The course's 150 acres are owned by Palm Beach County but leased to the city, which has operated The Links since 1984.
Boynton Beach commissioned the study in 2007, testing the waters for possible residential development. Those plans stalled as the housing market tanked, but the study discovered clusters of high arsenic content.
New tests in June found levels that were even higher. In six of nine wells, the arsenic concentration ranged from 27 and 460 parts per billion, according to the report. The state standard for groundwater is 10 parts per billion.
In a letter dated Tuesday, the DEP addressed the county manager and the mayor of Boynton Beach asking "what assurances does the Department have" that poison isn't leaking into the Lake Worth Drainage District, which controls the canal system, or north into residential land.
"It doesn't necessarily mean there's a problem; it's a trigger that we should start looking at the water to see what the risks are," said Helena Solo-Gabriele, an environmental and health researcher at the University of Miami.
Boynton Beach officials did not respond Wednesday to questions about how the arsenic got there or whether it will take any action.
Schmitt said arsenic in South Florida soil and groundwater is common. Landscapers and golf courses often apply pesticides laced with arsenic to the grass. He said any explanation of why a few test wells revealed such high arsenic content would be speculation.
"It's possible that there's some sort of arsenic being released from the soil," he said.
Arsenic, popularly known for killing rats, is a chemical element that occurs naturally in soil. It only becomes an immediate risk to human health if consumed in concentrations higher than 200 parts per billion, experts say.
Short-term effects include nausea, but chronic exposure raises the risk of developing several types of cancer.