About 15 percent of people in the US meet their water requirements through private wells. If you’re one of them, it feels good to be independent with regard to water. But, do you worry about the quality of the water in your well? If you don’t, maybe you should, because there is every possibility that your well water could have contaminants that pose serious health risks.
Unlike public water distribution systems that have specific water quality checks in place, private wells with less than 15 service connections do not come under the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency. In other words, if your water supply comes from a private well, it is up to you to ensure the water quality.
What can be wrong with the crystal clear water that you draw from your own well?
Turbidity, differences in color, taste or smell, and the presence of salt residues on taps are sure indicators of water quality problems. But it is hard to assess the quality of water by its physical properties alone. Many chemical and biological contaminants in the water may not cause perceptible changes in the taste and feel of water, but they can still be a health hazard.
Sometimes, a well that has served several generations may suddenly become contaminated when some new chemical industry, pig or poultry farms, or water treatment plant is built on nearby properties. The contaminants can travel great distances through soil and ground water. Getting the water tested at a reliable testing lab is the only solution.
Here’s a short list of the possible well water contaminants:
1. Fecal matter
It is really shocking, but fecal matter is a common contaminant in well water. It may come from human waste as well as animal waste from farms. Faults in the septic tank system and sewage lines cause soil contamination which would eventually end up contaminating the water bodies.
Fecal matter contains coliform bacteria; hence total coliform count in the well water serves as a benchmark to assess water quality in all water bodies, including wells. This test is commonly available in all testing labs, and the results tell you whether your well water is total coliform-positive or not. Even though coliform bacteria of different types are commonly found in soil, and most of them are harmless, their presence indicates the possibility of fecal contamination. The test should be repeated, and if turns out to be positive again, the well should be disinfected and the well casing should be thoroughly checked for cracks. It should then be repaired and the cover should be made airtight.
Total coliform-positive water should be sent for further testing to detect E.coli bacteria, the presence of which indicates contamination with human fecal matter. In that case, the house septic tank system and sewage lines should be checked for ruptures and blockages that cause overflows. Other pathogens that may be present in well water contaminated with fecal matter include giardia and cryptosporidium, which cause gastrointestinal diseases called giardiasis and cryptosporidiosis, respectively. However, individual testing is generally not done due to high expenses involved.
Until your well water is certified total coliform-negative, it is not safe to use the water for drinking purposes and for mixing infant formula. Accidental swallowing during bath and brushing teeth should be avoided. If another water source is not available, the well water can be boiled on high heat for five minutes.
2. Algal and bacterial growth
Dead and decaying organic matter such as farm debris and fallen leaves may enter open wells. They may not pose any serious threat to health as such, but their accumulation can promote the growth of algae and bacterial colonies in the water, rendering it unfit for drinking. Testing the well water for anaerobic bacteria may give a good picture of the bacterial load.
The water can be safely used for farming purposes, but thorough cleaning, chlorination and filtering should be done to make it potable.
3. Mineral salts
All natural and manmade water bodies on earth contain mineral salts dissolved in water, even if they may not taste salty like seawater. The minerals come from the rocks and the soil that ground water is in constant contact with. Many of these minerals such as calcium, potassium and magnesium are beneficial to our health, and their presence in drinking water often contributes to the daily requirement by the body. Manganese, iron and aluminum are also common mineral contaminants; their levels should be tested frequently to ensure that they are within permissible limits. At higher levels, they may cause many health issues including kidney and gall bladder stones, arthritis, glaucoma and atherosclerosis.
Even trace amounts of some minerals can be a health hazard in the long-run when they are consumed on a daily basis. Particularly harmful are heavy metals like arsenic, antimony and lead. Certain geographic areas are at greater risk due to the presence of bedrocks that contain these elements. Find out what minerals are prevalent in your area and check your well water for their presence above permissible limits.
Boiling the well water does not remove mineral salt contamination; it actually increases the salt concentration and makes the drinking water more dangerous. But reverse osmosis water filters can get rid of more than 90 percent of the dissolved salts in water.
Nitrates deserve special mention because this common contaminant of well water can have serious health consequences for infants, pregnant women and older people. These salts can get into water from the rocks and soil they naturally occur in. But well water contamination can also result from nitrogen fertilizers applied in farmlands. Another source is the nitrogenous waste generated in pig and poultry farms.
What makes nitrate contamination of water particularly dangerous is that it reduces the oxygen content of the blood, causing a life-threatening condition known as Methemoglobinemia. Infants fed on formula made with contaminated water are particularly susceptible, and may develop “blue baby syndrome. Boiling the water can only increase the risk. Nitrates are known to cause abortion in farm animals; pregnant women also could be at risk of miscarriages. Frequent testing is necessary as nitrogen levels in well water can fluctuate widely.
Radionuclides are unstable elements that emit ionizing radiation that can damage living tissue by disrupting cellular activities. They are widely used in medical treatments for thyroid problems and cancer. Food products are routinely irradiated to destroy insect pests and pathogens. Many of these elements get into our water sources, but contamination of well water is mainly from bedrock containing radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium.
These radioactive elements are naturally present in granite rocks, and they continuously decay to form radioactive daughter elements, including radon gas that gets released into the atmosphere. Radon further decays to polonium, which has the potential to cause lung cancer.
Radon gas readily dissolves in water without altering the color, taste or smell of the water, making it hard to recognize the contamination without specific tests. The risk of radon contamination in well water greatly depends on your geographic location; the most susceptible areas in the United States being parts of Iowa and southeastern Pennsylvania.
6. Industrial chemicals
Chemical industries such as petroleum refineries, mining operations and landfills with improperly disposed hazardous wastes are sources of industrial chemical contamination. Traces of gasoline, sulfuric acid and cyanide may find their way to wells in the neighborhood.
How Often Should You Get Water Tested?
Testing at least once a year is needed. When there are infants, pregnant women or elderly people in the household, more frequent testing is recommended. Immunocompromised individuals, including AIDS patients, people who have had organ transplants and those undergoing chemotherapy as part of cancer treatment, are also at risk of developing serious complications from contaminated water.
Some situations that warrant immediate water testing are:
- After heavy rains and flooding – it may cause sewage and leachate from landfills to enter the aquifer feeding the well.
- When the water level dips during droughts – the mineral salt concentration in the well water can increase to dangerous levels.
- If there have been recent septic system problems or repair – septic system overflow and spillage during repair can contaminate the soil with fecal matter and pathogens. They may eventually end up in the well water.
- If family members or guests have had recurrent gastrointestinal problems – Pathogens in well water can be the cause. In some cases, the family members who regularly use the water from contaminated wells would have developed immunity toward certain pathogens, but house guests may be more susceptible.
By testing your water, you can have peace of mind knowing that your source of drinking water is far, far cleaner than any public utility water.
Have you ever tested your well water? What tips would you add? Share your suggestions in the section below: