Thursday, May 21, 2015

Come, Sit at the Table and Eat Real Food


The “Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee” report made it official, food is part of the political agenda and not just about nourishment, pleasure, and the connection that eating together give us. In his book “Food Matters-A Guide to Conscious Eating,” Mark Bitman stated that you could improve your health and the health of the planet by eating less meat and a plant based diet. Though I can’t take issue with the idea that your own personal food philosophy and policy must be consistent with living a sustainable life, I do not see carbon emission as the primary way we should judge what to eat and the primary environmental problem . As a volunteer with the conservation district I spend my time engaged with farmers and conservation practices. My world view has been shaped by my life’s work and pursuits and I believe that farming requires and integrated animal component to be truly sustainable and have healthy soil and grasslands.

Mr Bitman cites as inspiration for his book the interdisciplinary report prepared by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The most quoted section of the report stated that 26% of the earth’s surface is used as grazing land, 33% of all arable land is utilized to grow feed for animals, as much as 18% of greenhouse gas emissions come from raising primarily beef livestock, and it takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. The way these estimates are presented presumes that all grazing animals are not part of a healthy earth. There was a time when North America was cover with herds of buffalo, with a population estimated to be 60,000,000. The native grasslands protected the soil and fed the herds. We once hunted the Buffalo to near extinction, now we have passed what climate scientists tell us is the tipping point in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and other greenhouse gasses. Whatever is going to happen will happen, and what mankind should be doing is living as sustainably as we can today.

The energy consumed to create, manufacture, distribute and deliver any product is complicated and much of the work that has been done is based on averages, which can be misleading since there are lands only suitable for grazing and grasslands are a necessary ecosystem. Nonetheless, the information can be useful. “The American Carbon Foodprint: Understanding your food’s impact on climate change,” by Mathew Kling, and Ian Hough (2010). This paper was sponsored by Brighter Planet, Inc., a company whose technology platform calculates the carbon, energy, and resource impact of a variety of real-life emission sources. According to the authors food represents 21% (5.46 metric tonnes CO2 equivalent emission) of the typical American’s 26 metric tonne total annual carbon footprint. The actual CO2 equivalent emissions associated with your food consumption is dependent on where, how much and what you eat, how the food is grown, transported, processed, prepared and what you do with the leftovers. Of course the rest of your carbon and environmental footprint depends on everything else you do; work, travel, transportation, the size and energy efficiency of your home, vacations, hobbies-simply every choice we make has some impact on the earth.

According to the Brite Planet study, transportation of the food from farm to store was a surprisingly small contributor to the total CO2 equivalent emissions embodied in the food. A much larger source of CO2 equivalent emissions in food are from the delivery of inputs like, fertilizer, water, and animal feed which are far more dependent on farming practices and location. Grass fed beef that is pasture raised would have a much smaller CO2 equivalent emissions than beef that is feed with remotely sourced grain. (In addition, pasture raised cows are reportedly less flatulent than grain fed cows because cows do not naturally digest grains.) Greenhouse gases, primarily methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, are produced by the animals during the digestion process in the gut. Additional emissions result from degradation processes occurring in uncovered waste lagoons and digesters.

Crops grown without irrigation, conservation agriculture and organic agriculture all have different ecological and CO2 equivalent emission footprints versus the “conventional agriculture” industrial agriculture products. One farmer may be more sustainable than another for a variety of reasons. However, most of the food’s transportation related CO2 equivalent emissions are from travel to the grocery store and restaurants by the consumer. Food-related driving accounts for 14% of the average family’s carbon footprint.

Other environmental issues associated with Industrial Farm Animal Production so called CAFOs include high levels of resource use. The system requires a large amount of water for irrigation of animal feed crops, as well as cleaning of many buildings and waste management systems. Much of this water comes from finite groundwater sources like the Ogallala and Central Valley of California that recharge slowly or not at all, and are in demand for human needs. Greenhouse gas emissions from all livestock operations, including CAFO facilities are reported to account for 18 % of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions (Steinfeld et al., 2006).

There are more sustainable approaches to agriculture. Conservation agriculture and organic farming both strive to achieve balance between people and the land, but take different approaches to feeding people without damaging the earth. Many of us know about organic farming methods which avoid artificial pesticides and chemical fertilizers as well as genetically modified crops and no antibiotics added to animal feed. Less well known is conservation agriculture which emphasizes sustainability of the farming operation and maintaining soil and its humus by minimizing soil disturbance, maintaining a permanent soil cover and utilizing crop rotations to retain soil nutrients. Conservation agriculture is a way to combine profitable agricultural production with environmental concerns and sustainability and is a proven method of sustainable land management that can be used on farms small and large.

We might have passed more than the tipping point in atmospheric CO2 and its equivalents in other greenhouse gases. With continued growth in world population and a growing demand for meat from emerging economies we may find the limits to the quantity of livestock and crops the earth can support. Human populations will continue pushing and expanding until we reach those limits or engineer some way around those limits. The industrial agriculture that produces so much food so effectively has been harsh on the earth and is extremely energy intensive and requires large amounts of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Chemical fertilizers do not replenish micronutrients or build soil. Healthy soil is the basis of a healthy environment and clean water resources.

As a child of the fifties my view of food will always be based on the “four food groups” of my youth. In case you’re way too young: meat (all sorts of animal flesh), fruit and vegetables, milk and dairy, and grains. Back then Home Economics class taught us to plan our family’s meals within a food budget and actually taught us to cook things. Layer on that background a family of origin who fed us powdered milk (for some unknown reason) eschewed all food with chemicals and where refined or packaged anything was suspect. We seemed to only eat chicken and salmon and less often meat. We all cooked. The only real food is food I made myself. Slow cooking and herbs rendered flavor. Today I make practically all our meals. They are not a political statement dictated by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, but rather a source of pleasure, a time to sit at the table and talk, nourishment, ritual and connection to my family.

I buy my meat from an unconventional farmer in Swoope, Virginia who describes his operation as mimicking natural systems. “For context, please understand that we don’t do anything conventionally. We haven’t bought a bag of chemical fertilizer in half a century, never planted a seed, own no plow or disk or silo...” He uses animal and pasture rotation to create what he describes as a symbiotic, multi-species synergistic relationship-dense production model that yields far more per acre than industrial models.” The mainstay of my fruits and vegetables come from my CSA farm share in Nokesville, Virginia. I try to know the sources of my food ingredients and their farming practices. I am a very good cook, I enjoy it and have practiced it daily for decades. Most of my family life takes place in the kitchen, either at the table or while I am cooking. I refuse to allow anyone to turn my life and the food on my table into a political agenda item mandated by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee or some TV Chef. Food is only about nourishment, pleasure, traditions, the connections that eating together give us and love.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Disinfecting My Well and Plumbing System

This spring when I tested my well water I found coliform bacteria present. This is a problem that should be address immediately, but is not a reason to panic. My well was found to be contaminated with coliform but not E. coli, so I have a nuisance bacteria problem and the source may be infiltration from the surface from rain or snow melt. Typical causes of this are an improperly sealed well cap, failed grouting or surface drainage to the well. Standard protocol is:
  1. Carefully check the well and water system for points of contamination and retest to verify the result making sure to use proper sampling procedures. 
  2. If the sample still tests positive for total coliform then treat the well and plumbing system with 50-200 ppm chlorine for 12-24 hours to disinfect system. Then flush the chlorine from the system.
  3. Retest the water after the chlorine has left the system in about 10 days to two weeks. Confirm the testing again after the next big rainstorm. If coliform bacteria remains “absent” you’re done. If not, then it is time to install a long term disinfection system.
You disinfect a private water well and plumbing system by circulating a concentrated chlorine solution throughout the system. The level of chlorine to use is between 50 ppm and 200 ppm (parts per million) depending on which University extension office is asked. I plan to use a bit over 100 ppm which gives me a little leeway because I am estimating the volume of water needed for the household plumbing. Be aware that too concentrated a solution or too weak a solution will not be effective. Do it once the right way. See the chart below to estimate the amount of chlorine you will need or the Virginia Tech or Minnesota guides.


I estimated I needed about 1 ½ gallons of chlorine because my well is 150 feet deep, the water level is around 8 foot down (each foot of a 6 inch diameter well is 1.47 gallons of water), my pressure tank holds about 15 gallons, my hot water heater holds 75 gallons and I have lots of piping in this big house. I have about 208 gallons of water in the well and probably another 150 gallons of water in the plumbing fixtures and pipes. For 100 ppm concentration of chlorine you need about 3 pints of chlorine per 100 gallons. A gallon and a half of chlorine brings me in around 114 ppm depending on how close I am to a good estimate of the amount of water in the plumbing system. I purchased more than twice the amount of chlorine I needed in case I needed to run some of the water off to get clear water or if I cannot get high enough chlorine concentration at the faucets. Also, I bought HTH chlorine test strips. While it’s pretty easy to smell the concentrated chlorine solution, the test strips are necessary for testing during flushing the chlorine out of the system.


I am going to immediately disinfecting my well because treating a well with chlorine also cleans out the mineral deposits in the well and eliminates (or reduces) iron reducing and sulfur bacteria that I have had problems with in the past. I was actually thinking of treating my well with chlorine sometime this year anyway. There is no time like the present. I started yesterday morning by repacking the soil around the well pipe to make sure it flows away from the well as much as possible.

First thing I needed to do earlier this week was develop a plan and find someone to help me. If I could just hire it out and be assured that it would be done neatly and right, I would. That is just not the way the world works. My very kind plumber was able to fit me in his schedule for two mornings and is going to work with me on this. I initially called a well driller, but they could not get me on the schedule for another 3 weeks and they tend to be really muddy and messy. My plumber is perfectly capable of helping me with anything I can’t do - loosen the bolts on the well cap for me- and while I add the chlorine to the well and wash the well cap and use the hose to recirculate the water he will drain the hot water heater and turn it off. I want the hot water heater to fill with chlorinated water to disinfect the tank, but I do not want to heat the chlorinated water- that is not at all safe in an enclosed area. During the waiting times, the plumber cleaned out some drains, tested the sump pumps and couple of other little things that needed to be done.

The first thing you need to do is purchase all your supplies and prepare. I bought or had on hand: a plastic tarp, 3 ½ gallons of plain unscented Clorox bleach (3 gallons is about twice what I need to disinfect my well and plumbing), an 8” diameter funnel, rubber gloves, a 3 gallon bucket (I can’t easily lift a 5 gallon filled with water and chlorine), chlorine test strips and a clean and relatively new hose. In addition, I bought 6 gallons of bottled water (to carry us while we have no water to use and make sure that our coffee and tea don not have any chlorine residue to spoil the taste), new refrigerator filters, and coliform home test kits for use in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday, I did laundry. Cooked two days of food, and ran the dishwasher. Thursday morning I took a bath, made three pots of coffee that I put into thermoses and put on old clothes, my indestructible old LL Bean “Ducks” and a pair or safety glasses to protect my eyes. I don’t want to be splashing chlorine solution in my eyes. Also, you should wear rubber gloves. Then I hooked up the new hose and laid the open end on the tarp.

Disinfecting or shock chlorinating a well and plumbing system is really a two person job especially when one of the people has a touch of arthritis in her 60 year old hands and cannot loosen bolts. I began by filling my bucket with some water and chlorine then turning off the power to the well. My assistant with younger and stronger hands took off the well cap, and then went to turn off the hot water heater and drain it. The hot water should be drained into a floor drain not the septic system and cut off the water valve so that the hot water heater does not refill until you are ready. This is where it was really helpful that I hired Chris Jones from Chantilly Plumbing to help me. Chris and Ron from Chantilly Plumbing installed my new hot water heater last fall and all I had to do was explain what I wanted done and I knew he would do it neatly and correctly.

While Chris was draining the hot water heater I was washing and disinfecting the well casing and well cap, (this amounts to scrubbing them with a new dish brush dipped in chlorine solution. Then I carefully examined the visible pump wires for damage or worn spots. I wiped off the wire using a clean rag dipped in the chlorine solution. Then I put the funnel in the well an poured the first bucket of chlorine and water solution into the well. I went with about a 2 to 1 water to bleach solution some universities recommend a 4 to one water to bleach solutions some say you can just pour the bleach in- I use 2 : 1. Then I went down to the basement turned on the power to the pump so I could draw more water and mixed up the rest of the chlorine and water and carefully poured it into the well.

Since the well is the delightful combination of water and electricity, it is always best to shut off the circuit breaker before you open the well, pull aside the wiring and begin pouring chlorine in. Mix the right amount of chlorine with water in a bucket, pull aside the wiring (and look at it to make sure it all looks sound) place the funnel in the top of the well and pour in the chlorine solution. Next it’s time to turn the power back on at the well, and use the hose to get the chlorine solution fully mixed and distributed in the well. All you do is put the hose in the well dropping it past all the wires and turn it on. The water with chlorine is drawn by the pump at the bottom of the well, pumped up the well and out to the pressure tank in the basement. Then it is pumped out the hose and back into the well. It is important that no water is being used in the house. While the hose did that, I carefully washed the well cap in the bucket with a chlorine solution, wrapped the well cap in a clean are of the tarp and went to have a cup of coffee. Read the paper and kill about half an hour. After about 30 minutes go check the well.

I pulled the hose and ran a bit of water into the white bucket I used earlier. A bit of crud and rust came up after, so I flushed the well by running the hose onto the gravel for about for about an hour. Then I added about half a gallon more of chlorine to replace the chlorine I ran off. Then I recirculated the well for about an hour while we had more coffee. After an hour I checked the appearance of the water in my white bucket, smelled the pronounce chlorine smell and was satisfied. I pulled out the hose, turned it off and Chris bolted the well cap back in place.

Then it was into the house to fill the hot water heater (still turned off) with chlorinated water. I set up the hoses for flushing the well the next morning by daisy chaining them to run into a gravel area to prevent killing off my lawn while Chris handled the hot water heater. After the hoses were set up I wen into the house and Chris and I ran every faucet until we could smell the chlorine and the test strips told me there was chlorine. After a while everything smells like chlorine so the test strips are helpful.

Every sink, the water line to the refrigerators, every toilet, the tub, the showers, the dishwasher and the washing machine all had chlorinated water drawn into them. Then it was no water for 12-24 hours and I went to get a manicure and pedicure. Hey a girl deserves her treats. After 16 hours just before dawn Friday the hose was turned on and left to run for the next 12 hours. It may take you much less time than it takes me to flush my well. I cannot run my well dry-it recharges faster than I can pump. So, I need to keep the diluting the chlorine solution to rid my well of it. After about 8 hours the chlorine tested below about 1 ppm and it was time to drain the hot water heater, refill it and turn it back on.

Once the hot water heater was up and running it was time to open each faucet in the house and run it until the water tested free of chlorine. Be aware the hot water will sputter- big time- until all the air is out of the system. Flush all the toilets, change the refrigerator filter cartridges and dump all your ice.

I’m done. A wee drink is in order. It will be two weeks or more before I can test my water for coliform bacteria and know if this solved my problem. Tomorrow we are leaving for a couple of days, so I am going to goose the septic system with some bacteria to make sure that the chlorine that found its way into the septic system did not cause a bacteria die-off.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Maintaining a Well

In our everyday lives we depend on many mechanical systems for our comfort and convenience. Cars, appliances, home heating and cooling systems all need regular maintenance, cleaning and repair. Most of us no longer have the skills to maintain or repair mechanical systems and often lack basic understanding of how these systems work. However, if you rely on a private well for your water supply, like me and 1.7 million other Virginians, you are completely responsible for routine testing, care and maintenance of that system and you should think about your water supply and equipment before a problem hits you over the head. I have a well, a septic system, a whole house generator, solar panels, an elevator, and all the usual HVAC and household systems. It is a lot to keep up with and maintain, but as a retired engineer I have a maintenance, repair and replacement schedule and budget. Though, I tend to take it as a personal fault when something fails unexpectedly or without an existing plan for replacement, I prefer to be in control of my infrastructure.

A well should be a 6 inch diameter pipe with a bolted cap sticking about a foot or more above the ground surface. What I have described is a drilled well there is also dug and bored wells. Those types of wells fail sooner, are prone to go dry during droughts and because they are shallow (less than 40 feet deep) are far more subject to pollution in our modern world. Drilled wells are more than 40 feet deep, typically more than 100. In Prince William County most drilled wells are between 150 and 450 feet below ground surface. Since 1979 in Prince William County and 1992 in Virginia as a whole well drillers are required to file a drilling log with the county and comply with drilling regulations.

Both wells and the mechanical components of a well have a limited life. Someday the well components and well its self will have to be replaced- plan and budget for it because you cannot live without a water supply. While many wells will last decades, it is reported by the groundwater association that 20 years is the average age of well failure. Older well pumps are more likely to leak lubricating oil or fail. Well casings are subject to corrosion, pitting and perforation. Also, over time the amount of water a well yields can decrease. That can be caused by the water table falling due to extended drought, increased use or building in the recharge area. Mineral encrustation and reducing bacteria buildup can cause plugging of holes in the well casing, well screen or the filling of openings in the geologic formation itself.

To keep the water flowing to your home you need to maintain your well and the equipment and occasionally replace components. This starts with regular well inspections. Start by walking out and looking at your well. The well should have a sanitary, sealed well cap, firmly seated and bolted to prevent contamination from insects from entering the well. Next make sure the soil is packed so that it slopes away from your well to prevent surface water from pooling around the casing, which can allow storm water to seep into your well. Sooner or later all well grouting fails and sloping the soil slows this down and helps to keep the surface water away from the well casing. Look to see if your well casing is rusted through, if you have an old steel casing, it will happen someday.

Test your well once a year for at least total coliform bacteria. While coliform bacteria are not a health threat itself, it is used to indicate other bacteria that may be present and identify that a well is not properly sealed from surface bacteria. The Virginia Rural Household Water Quality Program recommends that ever three years you test your well for at least coliform bacteria, E coli, pH, total dissolved solids (TDS), nitrate, and other contaminants of local concern. For me every one of the contaminants of concern is reducing bacteria. Usually called iron bacteria, it will also reduce manganese and sulfate creating a biofilm in the well, slime on the flappers in the toilet tanks and throw off my alternative septic system.

Elevated levels of iron, manganese and sulfate in groundwater are an ideal media for iron bacteria to grow. Iron bacteria are present in soils and surface water in this area of Virginia and in many parts of the country. Iron bacteria can be introduced into a well during drilling, repair, or service if tools, equipment, or devices used during well drilling or pump servicing were not properly disinfected. It is believed that the bacteria must be introduced into the aquifer and cannot infect the water without human help. There are tests that can look for micro-biologicals. National Testing Laboratories sells a mail in test for $40. You may want to take a look at all their products.

Some health departments in parts of the country that are also iron rich recommend chlorinating the well once a year or anytime it has been opened or serviced as a method of prevention and control of the bacteria. Elimination of iron bacteria once a well is heavily infested can be extremely difficult. Normal treatment for a problem such as this would be to chlorine “shock,” but iron bacteria can be particularly persistent and chlorine treatment of the well may be only partly effective. I chlorinate my well every couple years to address the iron bacteria and noticed that I like the quality of the water. I am essentially flushing the water system to remove residue and buildup from the system.

A new program that the Virginia Rural Household Water Quality Program is trying to launch is a professional well maintenance checkup. I have not tried a checkup from a participating Well Driller, yet, but a well maintenance check-up should include four components:
  1. A flow test to determine system well output and water level before and during pumping. (This is made possible by sounders and flow meters.)
  2. Check amp load, grounding, and line voltage on the pump. Check the pressure tank and pressure switch contact. 
  3. The well equipment should be inspect to assure that it is sanitary and meets local code requirements. 
  4. The water should be tested for safety and quality- iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. coli bacteria, and anything else of local concern. 
The results of the well check-up should be delivered to you in a concise, clear, written report that explains results and recommendations and includes all laboratory and other test results. This should not contain volumes of boilerplate nonsense like some home inspection reports, but useful information to a well owner.

You need to have a clear understanding of how your well and water system work to ensure that you system is properly maintained and operated. Do not ever buy water treatment equipment until you have determined by testing that it is necessary and you understand potential impacts and other treatment options. So far, I have no water treatment equipment on my system. As this posts I am really outside flushing my well from yesterday’s adventure in disinfection. I will write about that later, and in a few weeks or months I will know if I need to install a water disinfection system or if shock chlorination has solved my problem.

Monday, May 11, 2015

My Plan of Attack for the Coliform in My Well


The 2015 Prince William County water clinic found that almost a quarter of the wells tested present for coliform bacteria-this was a lower percentage than in years past. However this year my well was one of the wells that found coliform bacteria present. This is a problem that should be address immediately, but is not a reason to panic. Properly addressing coliform bacteria is not really difficult, just time consuming and inconvenient. Standard protocol is:
  1. Carefully check the well and water system for points of contamination and retest to verify the result making sure to use proper sampling procedures. 
  2. If the sample still tests positive for total coliform then treat the well and plumbing system with 50-200 ppm chlorine for 12-24 hours to disinfect system. Then flush the chlorine from the system.
  3. Retest the water after the chlorine has left the system in about 10 days to two weeks. Confirm the testing again after the next big rainstorm.
Coliform bacteria are commonly found in soil, on vegetation, and in surface water. They also live in the intestines of warm-blooded animals and humans. Some coliform bacteria strains can survive in soil and water for long periods of time. Coliform bacteria will not likely cause illness. Coliform bacteria do not occur naturally in most groundwater aquifers. However, fractured or creviced bedrock aquifers that are close to the surface are the exception and testing for E. coli and fecal coliform and nitrogen will help differentiate coliform from contamination that might impact your health. Disinfecting the well, well cap and entire plumbing system will let me know if I have a persistent coliform problem.

There are three different groups of coliform bacteria; total coliform, fecal coliform and Escherichia coli (E. coli) each has a different level of risk. Total coliform bacteria without the presence of E. coli bacteria is generally an indication of surface contamination introduced into the well. Generally, this type of bacteria is introduced by a failed well cap, improper sanitation after a well service or failed grouting or from the fractured rock system. Last winter I had my well cap replaced because the old one had failed. That is probably the source of the coliform, but I cannot be certain.

Coliform bacteria are not a health threat itself, it is used to indicate other bacteria that may be present and identify that a well is not properly sealed from surface bacteria. The federal standard for coliform bacteria is zero, but the federal standard allows that up to 5% of samples can test positive for coliform during a month. Fecal coliform and E. coli are bacteria whose presence indicates that the water is contaminated with human or animal wastes which is a much bigger problem.

My well was found to be contaminated with coliform but not E. coli, so I have a nuisance bacteria problem and the source may be infiltration from the surface from rain or snow melt or the repair last winter to my well. Typical causes are improperly sealed well cap, failed grouting or surface drainage to the well. I am hoping that this coliform problem was introduced when the repair was made and can be swiftly (and permanently) fixed by chlorine shocking the well.

Keep in mind that coliform bacteria do not always show up in every sample. They can be sporadic and sometimes seasonal when they occur in a water supply. Though it is recommended to resample before treating the system, I am going to skip that step and go directly to boiling all drinking water and getting set up to disinfect my well. If you receive a second positive sample for total coli forms, or if the initial sample is positive for E coli, do not consume the water. Bring the water to a rolling boil for one to five minutes (the higher the elevation the more time is necessary) to kill the bacteria. You may also want to consider using bottled water as a temporary drinking and cooking water source.

The reason I am going to immediately disinfecting my well is that treating a well with chlorine also cleans out the well and eliminates iron reducing bacteria that I have had problems with in the past. I was actually thinking of treating my well with chlorine sometime this year anyway. Shock chlorinate the well, disinfect the entire plumbing system, repack the soil around the well pipe to flow away from the well and wash and disinfect the well casing and well cap. Sounds simple when I write it out, but disinfecting or shock chlorinating a well and plumbing system is a lot of work and really a two person job especially when one of the people has a touch of arthritis in her 60 year old hands and cannot loosen bolts.

The Virginia Rural Household Water Quality Program recommends that if you are not an experienced DIY that you hire a well driller to do it for you. I would love to have paid someone to just do this for me, but I could not find a well driller I respect who has time for such a small job. Really though the hardest parts are opening the well head, and draining and treating the hot water heater, dishwasher, washing machine and ice makers. Everything else is just prep work, setting up hoses, and generally knowing what to do. So I called my very kind plumber who is willing to rent me his son (a journeyman plumber) this week for two mornings.

Then after two to three weeks I will retest my well for coliform bacteria and then test it again after the next big rainstorm. I’ve just ordered 12 coliform home testing kits that should be here tomorrow. If I find coliform is still present after a complete and thorough disinfection then I will immediately install a long-term treatment system. I will install a UV light system for continuous disinfection. These systems can cost up to $2,000 installed.

I plan to disinfect my well Wednesday. Meanwhile I need to prepare. So tomorrow I am going shopping for supplies. I need to buy: a plastic tarp, 3 gallons of Chlorox (Three gallons is about twice what I need to disinfect my well and plumbing. If a lot of crud comes up when I first recirculate the chlorine I will flush it before I let the water into the house and start again.), an 8” diameter funnel, chlorine test strips, coliform bacteria home test kits, 12 gallons of bottled water (to carry us while we have no water to use), new refrigerator filters, rubber gloves, a 5 gallon bucket. Then I need to wash my hose that I will use for recirculating the well water.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

2015 Water Wells of Prince William County

As part of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program the Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) occasionally holds subsidized drinking water clinics for well owners. This year samples were analyzed for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria at a cost of $49 to the well owner. These are mostly the naturally occurring contaminants and common sources of contamination: a poorly sealed well or a nearby leaking septic system, or indications of plumbing system corrosion. Though this is not an exhaustive list of potential contaminants, these are the most common contaminants that effect drinking water wells. The chart below shows what we found in the 54 private wells tested in Prince William County in 2015.


There are other contaminants that have be found in groundwater in many parts of the country, but this clinic only tested for the most common water quality problems in Prince William County and Virginia. There are also nuisance contaminants which are fairly common, but lack an approved EPA methodology for testing, iron bacteria is an example. Wells should be tested annually for bacteria and every 1-3 years for other common contaminants and a full analysis at least once of if there is the potential for groundwater contamination. If you install a treatment system to address a problem, testing should be more frequent. Groundwater is dynamic and can change over time, and it is important to make sure that any treatment is still appropriate and effective. The minerals and contaminants in my well have changed from year to year sometimes significantly. Water treatment systems are not an install and forget piece of equipment, they are more systems to maintain, adjust and control to keep the water within ideal parameters. Improperly treated water can be as problematic as not treating water.

In order to determine if treatment is necessary, water test results should be compared to a standard. The standard we use is the U.S.EPA Safe Drinking Water Act , SDW, though that regulation does not apply to private well owners. The SDW act has primary and secondary drinking water standards. Primary standards are ones that can impact health and from the tested substances include: coliform bacteria, E. coli bacteria, nitrate, lead, and arsenic.

The 2015 Prince William County water clinic found that almost a quarter of the wells tested present for coliform bacteria-this was a lower percentage than in years past. Coliform bacteria are not a health threat itself, it is used to indicate other bacteria that may be present and identify that a well is not properly sealed from surface bacteria. The federal standard for coliform bacteria is zero, but the federal standard allows that up to 5% of samples can test positive for coliform during a month. Fecal coliform and E. coli are bacteria whose presence indicates that the water is contaminated with human or animal wastes. Disease-causing microbes (pathogens) in these wastes can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, or other symptoms. These pathogens may pose a special health risk for infants, young children, and those with compromised immune systems. However, people can drink water contaminated with fecal bacteria and not notice. If your water is contaminated with coliform but not fecal coliform or E. coli, then you have a nuisance bacteria problem and the source may be infiltration from the surface from rain or snow melt. Typical causes are improperly sealed well cap, failed grouting or surface drainage to the well. Shock chlorinate the well, repack the soil around the well pipe to flow away from the well and replace the well cap. Then after the next big rainstorm retest the well for coliform. If it is still present then a long-term treatment should be implemented: using UV light, ozonation, or chlorine for continuous disinfection. These systems can cost up to $2,000 installed.

If you have fecal coliform in the well or E. coli, your well is being impacted by human or animal waste and you are drinking dilute sewage. If there is not a nearby animal waste composting facility, then you are probably drinking water from a failed septic system- yours or your nearest neighbors. To solve this problem you need to either fix or replace the septic system that is causing the contamination, replace the well or install a disinfection and filtration system. Disinfection does not kill Giardia or Cryptosporidium, two microscopic parasites that can be found in groundwater that has been impacted by surface water or sewage. Both parasites produce cysts that cause illness and sometimes death.

Membrane filtration is the usual treatment for these parasites- a one micron membrane is required after disinfection and can be accomplished at home with a reverse osmosis system. The failing septic systems can often be identified by using tracer dyes. While continuous disinfection will work to protect you from fecal bacteria and E. coli, be aware that if your well is being impacted by a septic system, then the well water might also have present traces of all the chemicals and substances that get poured down the drain. Long term treatment for disinfection, and micro-filtration should be implemented: using UV light, ozonation, or chlorine for continuous disinfection, carbon filtration, and anything that is used for drinking should be further treated with a reverse osmosis systems or micro membrane system that work by using pressure to force water through a semi-permeable membrane. Large quantities of wastewater are produced by reverse osmosis systems and need to bypass the septic system or they will overwhelm that system creating more groundwater problems. Reverse osmosis systems produce water very slowly, a pressurized storage tank and special faucet needs to be installed so that water is available to meet the demand for drinking and cooking.

Nitrate can contaminate well water from fertilizer use; leaking from septic tanks, sewage and erosion of natural deposits. None of the wells in our group of 54 samples had nitrate levels above the MCL. The MCL for nitrate is 10 mg/L. Infants below the age of six months who drink water containing nitrate in excess of the MCL could become seriously ill from blue-baby syndrome and, if untreated, may die. Symptoms include shortness of breath and a blue ting to the skin common in blue-baby syndrome. The NO3 dissolves and moves easily through soil which varies seasonally and over time as plants use up the nitrate over the summer. Testing in the spring will usually produce the highest levels. Nitrate may indicate contamination from septic tanks, but do not boil the water- boiling water reduces the water and actually INCREASES the concentration of nitrates. Reverse osmosis, or ion exchange is necessary to control the nitrate.

Iron and manganese are naturally occurring elements commonly found in groundwater in this part of the country. Several of the wells tested exceeded the secondary standard, 9.3% of the wells tested exceed the iron standard and 7.4% exceeded the manganese standard. At naturally occurring levels iron and manganese do not present a health hazard. However, their presence in well water can cause unpleasant taste, staining and accumulation of mineral solids that can clog water treatment equipment and plumbing. The standard Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level (SMCL) for iron is 0.3 milligrams per liter (mg/L or ppm) and 0.05 mg/L for manganese. This level of iron and manganese are easily detected by taste, smell or appearance. In addition, some types of bacteria react with soluble forms of iron and manganese and form persistent bacterial contamination in a well, water system and any treatment systems. These organisms change the iron and manganese from a soluble form into a less soluble form, thus causing precipitation and accumulation of black or reddish brown gelatinous material (slime). Masses of mucous, iron, and/or manganese can clog plumbing and water treatment equipment.

All systems of removing iron and manganese essentially involve oxidation of the soluble form or killing and removal of the iron bacteria. When the total combined iron and manganese concentration is less than 15 mg/l, an oxidizing filter is the recommended solution. An oxidizing filter supplies oxygen to convert ferrous iron into a solid form which can be filtered out of the water. Higher concentrations of iron and manganese can be treated with an aeration and filtration system. This system is not effective on water with iron/ manganese bacteria, but is very effective on soluble iron and manganese so you need to do further testing to determine what type of iron/manganese you have before you install a treatment system. Chemical oxidation can be used to remove high levels of dissolved or oxidized iron and manganese as well as treat the presence of iron/manganese (or even sulfur) bacteria. The system consists of a small pump that puts an oxidizing agent into the water before the pressure tank. The water will need about 20 minutes for oxidation to take place so treating before a holding tank or pressure tank is a must. After the solid particles have formed the water is filtered. The best oxidizing agents are chlorine or hydrogen peroxide. If chlorine is used, an activated carbon filter is often used to finish the water and remove the chlorine taste. The holding tank or pressure tank will have to be cleaned regularly to remove any settled particles.

The pH of water is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity. The pH is a logarithmic scale from 0 – 14 with 1 being very acidic and 14 very alkaline. Drinking water should be between 6.5 and 7.5. For reference and to put this into perspective, coffee has a pH of around 5 and salt water has a pH of around 9. Corrosive water, sometimes also called aggressive water is typically water with a low pH. (Alkaline water can also be corrosive.) Low pH water can corrode metal plumbing fixtures causing lead and copper to leach into the water and causing pitting and leaks in the plumbing system. The presence of lead or copper in water is most commonly leaching from the plumbing system rather than the groundwater. Acidic water is easily treated using an acid neutralizing filter. Typically these neutralizing filters use a granular marble, calcium carbonate or lime. If the water is very acidic a mixing tank using soda ash, sodium carbonate or sodium hydroxide can be used. The acid neutralizing filters will increase the hardness of the water because of the addition of calcium carbonate. The sodium based systems will increase the salt content in the water. Though 14.8% of the wells tested were found to have acidic water this year. High pH levels are not natural to groundwater and typically result from salt water intrusion or over treatment with water softening system.

Water that contains high levels of dissolved minerals is commonly referred to as hard. Groundwater very slowly wears away at the rocks and minerals picking up small amounts of calcium and magnesium ions. Water containing approximately 125 mg/L can begin to have a noticeable impact and is considered hard. Concentrations above 180 mg/L are considered very hard. As the mineral level climbs, bath soap combines with the minerals and forms a pasty scum that accumulates on bathtubs and sinks. You either must use more soap and detergent in washing or use specially formulated hard water soap solutions. Hard water can be just a minor annoyance with spotting and the buildup of lime scale, but once water reaches the very hard level 180 mg/L or 10.5 grains per gallon, it can become problematic, 22% of the wells had hard water exceeding that level. This year we had a well test at 788 mg/L a higher level of hardness than I have ever seen in naturally occurring water in Virginia. Such high levels might result from inappropriate use of a water neutralizing system. When heated, calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate are removed from the water and form a scale (lime scale) in cookware, hot water pipes, and water heaters.

Water softening systems are used to address the problem are basically an ion exchange system. The water softening system consists of a mineral tank and a brine tank. The water supply pipe is connected to the mineral tank so that water coming into the house must pass through the tank before it can be used. The mineral tank holds small beads of resin that have a negative electrical charge. The calcium and magnesium ions are positively charged and are attracted to the negatively charged beads. This attraction makes the minerals stick to the beads as the hard water passes through the mineral tank. Sodium is often used to charge the resin beads. Water softeners can be used to remove small amounts of other metals like iron and some forms of arsenic. As the water is softened, the sodium ions are replaced and small quantities of sodium are released into the softened water, thus the salty taste of softened water. When the water softening system is recharged the excess sodium solution carrying the calcium and magnesium is flushed to the septic system which may shorten the life of the drain field.

At the present time the EPA guidance level for sodium in drinking water is 20 mg/L. This level was developed for those restricted to a total sodium intake of 500 mg/day and does not necessarily represent a necessary level for the rest of the population. Based on taste of the water levels of sodium should be below 30 to 60 mg/L based on individual taste. Water softeners ten to be the most oversold piece of water treatment equipment and cost around $4,500 installed. They are often sold to solve every water quality problem because they have some ability to remove other contaminants. The resin bed used will determine specific contaminant removal. Softened water can have a low pH and high levels of chloride, corrosion control problems and softening systems can encourage the growth of reducing bacteria. Water softening systems add sodium. Reverse osmosis systems and distillation systems remove sodium and are safe for household use, but addressing hard water by using vinegar to descale pots and dishwashers, regularly draining hot water heaters, and using detergents formulated for hard water might be a better solution for you.

For the first time this year we found a well that had arsenic exceeding the EPA MCL for drinking water of 10 ppm. While arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in soil and groundwater it is not typically found at significantly elevated levels in Prince William County. Arsenic can also be an indication of industrial or pesticide contamination and further testing should be done. Arsenic can be very tricky to remove depending on its form and the other contaminants present. Possible solutions for elevated levels of naturally occurring arsenic are reverse osmosis system, iron oxide filter system, or maybe a water softening system.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Shrimp and Food Safety

Consumer Reports has released their latest study on the safety of food sold in supermarkets. This time focusing on shrimp. Every year Americans eat about 1.14 billion pound of shrimp. In 2013, 1.07 billion pounds or 94% of the total shrimp sold in the U.S. was imported from foreign aquaculture operations. Consumer Report tested 342 packages of frozen shrimp that included 284 samples of raw shrimp and 58 samples of cooked shrimp purchased at groceries and warehouse stores in 16 cities in the U.S.

In 2014, frozen shrimp represented 78.8% of all imported shrimp and most of the wild U.S. shrimp sold so was the largest sample. Fresh never frozen fish was not sampled because according to Consumer reports they represent only a small percentage of consumer purchases. They included samples from countries where more than 5% of the shrimp originated and tested a proportionally larger sample of shrimp from the U.S. and from each of the four largest shrimp exporters: Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India. They made sure to test a large sample of wild shrimp because most wild shrimp found in stores were from from the U.S., Argentina (uncooked only), Mexico (uncooked only), and India (cooked only). All of the shrimp from Argentina were wild, and nearly all of the U.S. shrimp were also wild. All shrimp we purchased from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Ecuador, China, and Bangladesh were farmed.
from Consumer Reports
 Consumer Reports found that overall, 60 % (or 171 of the samples) of uncooked shrimp were contaminated with one or more of the bacteria they tested for, and 15.5 % (9 sample) of the cooked shrimp contained the bacteria they tested for. As expected, uncooked samples were significantly more likely to have at least one of the bacteria we looked for than were cooked samples, however, cooked shrimp were still found to be contaminated. Overall, U.S. wild shrimp tended to be contaminated with fewer bacteria than other shrimp. In addition, they tested almost all of the bacteria isolated for antibiotic resistance. Overall, the likelihood of finding bacteria resistant to antibiotics also differed by production method and country of origin. Resistance to more than three classes of antibiotics was found for bacteria from farmed shrimp from Ecuador, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. The country and production methods that had the fewest bacteria with resistance (i.e., no resistance) included U.S. wild and farmed shrimp, farmed shrimp from China and Thailand, and wild shrimp from Argentina and Mexico.

Consumer Reports found that the samples least handled (shell on) typically had less S. aureus compared with samples that were likely to be the most handled. The bottom line is the best choices for safety and sustainability are wild shrimp from the U.S. identified by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program as “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative.” Sixty percent of the U.S. wild shrimp were free of all the bacteria Consumer Reports tested for compared with only 20% to 30 % of the shrimp from Bangladesh, India, and Indonesia. Wild shrimp from other countries with a “Best Choice” rating from the Seafood Watch program are also a good choice. Buy shrimp that have the Marine Stewardship Council stamp to ensure sustainable practices.

If you live in the United States you have a 1 in 6 chance to get sick (each year) from food and yet the United States has one of the safest food supplies in the world. About 48 million get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from food borne diseases, according to 2011 estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still the United States has one of the safest food supplies in the world. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011.  So far we've seen no progress in food safety..

To be honest, I do not eat or serve shrimp, ever; and shrimp was found to have less bacteria contamination than chicken breasts. But if you are going to eat shrimp the safest route is to buy raw shrimp with the shell on, handle it properly and cook it yourself to make sure that any bacteria is killed by proper cooking and handling. Note that the toxin produced by S. aureus is heat stable and not destroyed by cooking, so the best way to avoid that toxin is to always keep shrimp cold until cooking. Once cooked and hot, keep shrimp hot if they are to be stored longer than 2 hours to minimize the risk of toxin production.

Before cooking, keep the shrimp cold when peeling and deveining. By the way, the “vein” is just the poop tube. Look for the vein to make sure the fish is wild. Often, shrimp farmers stop feeding shrimp before harvesting so the vein empties. Frozen deveined shrimp may simply be farmed shrimp. You might as well go ahead and buy frozen raw shrimp (defrost in the refrigerator) since according to the NOAA Fisheries Office of International Affairs and Seafood Inspection the shrimp sold at many seafood counters was previously frozen.

Supermarkets and warehouse stores are required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to state whether shrimp is wild or farmed, but a 2014 study found that this is often inaccurate. The Oceana Organization performed DNA testing on shrimp and found that 30% percent of the 143 shrimp products tested from 111 grocery stores and restaurants were misrepresented. Oceana defined misrepresentation as products that were mislabeled (one species swapped out for another), misleading (e.g. farmed species labeled as “Gulf”), or mixed/mystery (e.g. commingling species among bagged shrimp). So, buyer beware.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Algae Blooms to be Monitored from Space

Earlier this month the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), NOAA and NASA announced that they are jointly is developing an early warning system using historical and current satellite data to detect algal blooms. The $3.6 million project intends to create a reliable, standard method for identifying cyanobacteria blooms in U.S. freshwater lakes and reservoirs using water color satellite data. “Algal blooms pose an expensive, unpredictable public health threat that can affect millions of people,” said Sarah Ryker, USGS Deputy Associate Director for Climate and Land Use Change. “By using satellite-based science instruments to assess conditions in water and on adjacent land, we hope to improve detection of these blooms and to better understand the conditions under which they occur.”

NOAA and NASA pioneered the use of satellite data to monitor and forecast harmful algal blooms especially in the Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes. Satellites allow for more frequent and continual observations over broader areas than water sampling and could provide and potentially an early warning of the formation of a toxic algae bloom. The Landsat satellite series, a joint effort of USGS and NASA, has provided a continuous recording of land use and land cover conditions since 1972. The latest satellite, Landsat 8, has demonstrated promising new capabilities for water quality assessment.

Toxic algae blooms also called dead zones form in summers when higher temperatures reduce the oxygen holding capacity of the water, the air is still and especially in years of heavy rains that carry excess nutrient pollution from cities and farms. The excess nutrient pollution combined with mild weather encourages the explosive growth of algae fed by excessive nutrient pollution. The dead zones in the 1970’s were caused by the release of phosphorus in what we would today consider partially treated sewage being released by waste water treatment plants. Stronger regulations on waste water treatment plants under the Clean Water Act seemed to alleviate that problem to a large extent. However, the ecology of newer toxic algae blooms capable of affecting human health began to appear in this century.

Only certain species of blue-green algae form the toxin, for reasons that aren't fully understood. Toxic bacteria were not a problem until the 21st century, though algae blooms have been a problem on Lake Erie, the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay and other areas for over half a century. Microcystine or cyanobacteria is a toxin produced by microcystis, a type of blue-green algae that spreads in the summer algae bloom. These dead zone toxic algae blooms had almost disappeared on the Great Lakes by the end of the 20th century, but there has been a recurrence with some of the worst algae blooms seen in the Great Lakes occurring in the last six to eight years. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy attributes this to climate change.

Last August the water supply for Toledo, Ohio tested positive for microcystine. A “Do Not Drink” order was issued for the city and the residents were without drinkable tap water for three days. On day three the drinking water from Toledo’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant was declared safe to drink and life returned to normal in Toledo, Ohio, but is the new normal safe drinking water only most of the time. The current study project is intended to broaden our understanding of the formation of toxic algae blooms. EPA researchers are working to develop mobile apps for local communities to respond quickly to real-time water quality issues.

The joint agency project also includes a research component to improve our understanding of the environmental causes and health impacts of cyanobacteria and phytoplankton blooms across the United States. Blooms in lakes and estuaries are produced when aquatic plants receive excess nutrients under suitable environmental conditions. Various land uses, such as urbanization and agricultural practices, change the amount of nutrients and sediment delivered in watersheds, which can influence cyanobacterial growth.