Monday, May 29, 2017

Air Pollution Kills?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) air pollution causes one in nine premature deaths in the world, and it is often reported that in the United States air pollution causes 200,000 deaths each year. Though none of us has ever known anyone who has died from air pollution...quantifying the impacts of air pollution is very complicated and uncertain.

In the United States the estimate comes from a 2013 MIT research paper that used 2005 air pollution data. The MIT’s Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment tracked near ground level air pollution from sources such as industrial smokestacks, cars, buses, trains, and commercial and residential heating throughout the United States, and found by comparing areas of higher pollution areas with lower pollution that air pollution causes about 200,000 early deaths each year. Air pollution from cars, trains, buses, and trucks was found to be the biggest contributor, causing 53,000 premature deaths, followed closely by power generation, with 52,000 deaths.

Air pollution in the form of fine particles with diameters smaller than 2.5 microns, called PM 2.5, lodge in the lungs which can aggravate other conditions both immediately and long term –cutting months off of lives. This fine particulate matter can have immediate health impacts: itchy, watery eyes, increased respiratory symptoms such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing and aggravated asthma. Long term health effects can result from both short-term and long-term exposure to particulate pollution. Exposure to particles can cause premature death in people with pre-existing cardiac or respiratory disease. Researchers are still working to identify which types and sources of particles are most hazardous to human health. When the scientists estimated the total impact of particulate air pollution, they determined that all those months taken off the lives of people with pre-existing conditions added up to be about equivalent to about 200,000 deaths each year.

Fine particulate matter is made up of particles that are emitted directly, such as soot and dust, as well as secondary particles that are formed in the atmosphere from reactions of precursor pollutants such as oxides of nitrogen (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and ammonia (NH3). Particle are either directly emitted or formed in the atmosphere. Directly-emitted particles come from a variety of sources such as cars, trucks, buses, industrial facilities, power plants, construction sites, tilled fields, unpaved roads, stone crushing, and burning of wood. Other particles are formed indirectly when gases produced by fossil fuel combustion react with sunlight and water vapor. Many combustion sources, such as motor vehicles, power plants, and refineries both emit particles directly and emit precursor pollutants that form secondary particulates. Ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulfate are the principal components of secondary particulates.

In the MIT study they found that the largest number of emissions-related premature deaths came from road vehicles, with 53,000 early deaths per year attributed to exhaust from the tailpipes of cars and trucks. The scientists postulated that vehicles tend to travel in populated areas, increasing large populations’ pollution exposure and the exhausts are emitted close to the ground. While power plants are generally located far from most populations and their emissions are deposited at a higher altitude. Pollution from electricity generation still accounted for 52,000 premature deaths annually. The largest impact was seen in the east-central United States and in the Midwest: Eastern power plants tend to use coal with higher sulfur content than Western plants which contributes to fine particulate creation. Though changes in power generation fuel (the low price of methane from fracking) and coal plant regulations has decreased the amount of particulate matter emitted from coal fired power plants.

Unsurprisingly, most premature deaths due to commercial and residential pollution sources, such as heating and cooking emissions, occurred in densely populated regions along the East and West coasts. Pollution from industrial activities was highest in the Midwest, roughly between Chicago and Detroit, as well as around Philadelphia, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Industrial emissions also peaked along the Gulf Coast region, possibly due to the proximity of the largest oil refineries in the United States.


Just as I keep an eye on my water quality I also spot check the local air quality. As Bangledesh, India, Pakistan and China continue to spew more and more pollutants and particulates from their expanding automobile ownership and increasing numbers of power plants and industrial manufacturing the world level of particulate pollution slowly climbs up. While the pollution is most concentrated in their own cities, air pollution moves beyond borders. As the developing world expands their air pollution, the United States (and most of the western developed world) continues to reduce ours. 


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, requires states to monitor air pollution to assess air quality and ensure that they meet minimum air quality standards. Still, not all of the nation is monitored. The US EPA has established both annual and 24-hour PM2.5 air quality standards (as well as standards for other pollutants). The annual standard is now 12 ug/m3 (an AQI of 39). The 24-hr standard was recently revised to a level of 35 ug/m3 (an AQI of 99) and will remain unchanged. States will have until 2020 to meet this PM2.5 health standard that was last lowered in 2012. If you want to take a look at real time particulate pollution levels you can see what the monitors nearest your home are reporting. Note that the levels are reported in AQI (0-50 AQI is good air quality and 51-99 is moderate air quality). Long Park in Haymarket Virginia was reporting an AQI level of 3 as I was finishing this article. Long Park is about 3 miles from my house down route 15.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Cicadas are Emerging Early

Cicadas, probably Magicicada septendecim and Magicicada cassinii have arrived four years early in greater Washington DC metropolitan area. This year precursors to the cicada Brood X due in 2021 are emerging early and may continue to  emerge in the next couple of weeks around D.C. in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia as well in other areas of Brood X. In Virginia there are seventeen broods of the 17-year cicada and thirteen broods of the 13-year cicada. Every year they will emerge somewhere in the state, but Brood X due in 2021 is one of the largest.  There may be a significant enough number of early emerges this year to qualify as a new brood and you can help scientists monitor this.  

Reports of cicadas have been widespread and this might be an acceleration event. Periodical cicada accelerations occur when a significant group of an established brood emerge in years ahead of the main brood, and sometimes the accelerated group are able to reproduce and create what is essentially a new brood. This is believed to be how Brood VI was formed. W.T. Davis documented accelerations of cicada populations back in the 1800s, which was reported in the 1898 report “The Periodical Cicada. An Account Of Cicada Septendecim, Its Natural Enemies And The Means Of Preventing Its Injury.

Cicadas that emerge either ahead or behind schedule are called “stragglers.” In terms of cicadas, scientists and naturalists have been using the term “straggler” for over a century, so it has stuck despite the common meaning of straggler as behind the group. Typically 17-year periodical cicadas emerge 4 years early or one year late. Climate or weather can impact a cicada cycle and there is a natural tendency to accelerate when population density becomes too great. If there is a high density of them underground, vying for limited resources, some might emerge early or a year after the main Brood.

Climate variations can also trigger periodical cicadas to emerge ahead of their brood. Periodical cicadas take cues from the seasonal cycles of their host trees. An unusual climate event, like a hot fall or winter, might cause trees to signal cicadas that additional years have passed, and cause them to shift to emerge early. Metropolitan areas like Washington D.C., or “heat islands” can often be much hotter than surrounding rural areas due to population density. The effects of living within a heat island may have disrupted the seasonal cycles of the cicadas’s host trees, and also the cicadas.


You will know the cicadas by their song, which to me sounds like wind on a cell phone connection, but you can listen to the actual chorus on the u-Tube video above. Male cicadas sing quite loudly by vibrating membranes on the sides of their abdominal segment. Male songs and choruses are a courtship ritual to attract females for mating. If you hear the cicadas chorus report the finding to Magicicada.org.

After mating, females lay their eggs in narrow young twigs slicing into the wood and depositing up to 400 eggs in total for each female in 40 to 50 locations each. It is the egg laying that does most of the damage associated with periodical cicadas. Cicada eggs remain in the twigs for six to ten weeks before hatching. The nymphs do not feed on the twigs. The newly hatched, ant-like nymphs fall to the ground where they burrow 6 to 18 inches underground to feed on roots. Mature trees and shrubs usually survive even dense emergences of cicadas without long term damage, but in the summer of a large emergence many deciduous trees turn brown due to the breakage and death of peripheral twigs caused by the females laying their eggs and the emergence of the nymphs. Nonetheless, only young trees are usually permanently damaged and that is because so much of these trees are small twigs and branches.

Monday, May 22, 2017

NRDC Reviews Quality of Drinking Water in the U.S.

Earlier this month the National Resource Defense Council, NRDC, reported that almost a quarter of the U.S. population, spread across all 50 states, received their drinking water from public water suppliers that reported violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2015. The Safe Drinking Water Act regulates not only threats to health, but also has requirements for water quality, testing, and reporting. The NRDC report found that 27 million people, or slightly over 8% Americans, were served by a drinking water system with health-based violations. In addition 15% of Americans obtain their drinking water from private wells that are unregulated and predominately untested.

The health-based violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act rules that were found by NRDC were most frequently caused by: disinfection byproducts which are known to cause cancer; coliform bacteria; the failure to properly treat surface and groundwater to remove dangerous pathogens; nitrates and nitrites that can cause “blue baby syndrome”; and lead and copper.

The report found the 12 states with the most offenses based on population were (in order):
1. Texas
2. Florida
3. Pennsylvania
4. New Jersey
5. Georgia
6. Washington
7. Ohio
8. California
9. Arizona
10. Kentucky
11. Wisconsin
12. Maryland

Though Maryland was on the list of top 12 violators, in the Washington DC metropolitan area their performance was much better, and you will notice on the map below that Prince William County was a regional sore spot with 4 violations impacting 14,525 residents of our county. 


The analysis by NRDC found that in 2015 there were more than 80,000 reported violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act by community water systems. Of these violations more than 12,000 were health-based violations in some 5,000 community water systems serving more than 27 million people. Very small systems found in rural or sparsely populated areas account for more than half of all health-based violations, and nearly 70% of all violations.

Repercussions for violations were virtually nonexistent. Nearly nine in 10 violations were subject to no formal action, and just 3.3 percent faced financial penalties for the violations. It is also very possible that under-reporting and lax enforcement could mean the true number of violations is much higher.

We have turned away from enforcing our Safe Drinking Water Act regulations. We have good regulations, but if they are not enforced they can not protect us. Clearly, we cannot manage this from Washington D.C. Communities need to insist and ensure that our water supply companies are compliant with the regulations and supplying their customers with safe drinking water. In addition, the water infrastructure, pipes, reservoirs, pump stations, and treatment plant upgrades, has been neglected. For the large part the water systems are only reacting to the latest service interruption –repairing pipes after they break. This also needs to change. We can no longer afford to neglect our water supply and infrastructure.

In total, there are approximately 155,000 public drinking water supply systems across the country. Most Americans (just under 300 million people) receive their drinking water from one of the nation’s 51,356 larger community water systems. The remainder receive drinking water from private wells or small supply systems. The larger community water systems have an average pipe replacement rate of 0.5% per year. That means that it will take an estimated 200 years to replace the system – more than double the useful life of the pipes.

NRDC was founded in the 1970’s by a group of law students and attorneys and worked alongside other groups for the passage in 1974 of the Safe Drinking Water Act, SDWA, consisting of rules that regulate about over 90 contaminants often found in drinking water. Back then I was working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Over the years I have not always agreed with NRDC’s approach or their emphasis, but it seems they have once more returned to the fundamentals of making sure that our nation’s citizens have access to safe drinking water. 
The findings of the NRDC report are quoted below:

Combined Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rules-Exposure to these contaminants can lead to cancer and may be linked to reproductive impacts such as miscarriages and birth defects. In 2015, there were 11,311 violations (4,591 health-based) at community water systems serving 25,173,431 people (12,584,936 health-based). Formal enforcement measures were taken in 12.4 % of all cases and 23.0 % of health-based cases.

Total Coliform Rule-The presence of coliforms in drinking water indicates that possible presence of organisms that can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, and headaches in otherwise-healthy people. It is an indication of how sanitary the water is. In 2015, there were 10,261 violations (2,574 health-based) at community water systems serving 17,768,807 people (10,118,586 health-based). Formal enforcement was taken in 8.8 % of cases (and 8.3 % of health-based cases).

Combined Surface, Ground Water, and Filter Backwash Rules-Exposure to some of these pathogens, such as Cryptosporidium or Giardia, can cause severe gastrointestinal distress, nausea, and diarrhea or death in vulnerable populations. In 2015 there were 5,979 violations (1,790 health-based) at community water systems serving 17,312,604 people (5,336,435 health-based). Formal enforcement was taken in 13.7 % of cases (28.2 % of health-based cases).

Nitrites and Nitrates Rule-Exposure can lead to blue baby syndrome in infants (potentially leading to death in extreme cases), developmental effects, and cardiovascular disease. In 2015, there were 1,529 violations (459 health-based) at community water systems serving 3,867,431 people (1,364,494 health-based). Formal enforcement action was taken in 11.3 % of all cases (and 27.9 % of health-based cases).

Lead and Copper Rule-Exposure to lead  generally comes from pipes and plumbing infrastructure. Lead is particularly toxic to children and can cause serious, irreversible damage to their developing brains and nervous systems. Lead exposure can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women, as well as fertility issues, cardiovascular and kidney effects, cognitive dysfunction, and elevated blood pressure in healthy adults. In 2015, there were 8,044 violations (303 health-based) by systems serving 18,350,633 people (582,302 health-based). Formal enforcement action was taken in 12.0 % of the cases (and in 14.2 % of health-based cases).

Radionuclides Rule-Exposure can lead to cancers and compromised kidney function. In 2015, there were 2,297 violations (962 health-based) in community water systems serving 1,471,364 people (445,969 health-based). Formal enforcement was taken in 11.7 % of all cases (and 16.1 % of health-based cases).

Synthetic Organic Contaminants Rule-Exposure can cause cancers, developmental effects, central nervous system and reproductive difficulties, endocrine issues, or liver and kidney problems. In 2015 there were 6,864 violations (17 health-based) serving 2,669,594 people (301,099 health-based). Formal enforcement action was taken in 7.3 % of cases (and 5.9 % of health-based cases).

Inorganic Contaminants Rule- Exposure can lead to increased cholesterol, kidney damage, hair loss, skin irritation, and cancer. In 2015, there were 1,505 violations (291 health-based) in community water systems serving 1,312,643 people (83,033 health-based). Formal enforcement was taken in 5.2 % of cases (15.1 % of health-based cases).

Volatile Organic Contaminants Rule-Exposure can lead to cancers; developmental, skin, and reproductive issues; and cardiovascular problems. Exposure can also cause adverse effects on the liver, kidneys, and immune and nervous systems. In 2015 there were 10,383 violations (15 of them health-based) at community water systems serving 3,451,072 people (5,276 health-based). Formal enforcement was taken in 6.1 % of cases (and 26.7 % of health-based cases).

Public Notification Rule-All community water systems are required to directly deliver information about their drinking water quality to each customer once a year. In 2015 there were 13, 202 violations by community water systems serving 8,381,050 people. Formal enforcement action was taken in 10.3 % of cases.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Working for Clean Water

Last month New York passed the Clean Water Infrastructure Act which allocates $2.5 billion to a variety of projects to improve the safety of drinking water in that state, my childhood home. The legislation will among other things provide $1.5 billion in grants for water infrastructure improvements, $75 million in rebates to help homeowners replace septic systems and $110 million to protect land in watersheds. This legislation significantly expands a similar state infrastructure fund that over the past few years made $400 million available to communities, though falls short of the $80-$100 billion the State’s Legislature Environmental Conservation Committee says is needed to fix the state’s aging water infrastructure.

The water quality problem especially on Long Island in Suffolk County is reported to be acute- every water body within the county is listed as impaired with dead rivers, closed beaches, and harmful algae blooms. It is reported that Suffolk County has 360,000 septic systems. For years, nitrogen along with E. coli from leaky septic tanks has seeped into groundwater and eventually into rivers and bays. Water quality has continued to decline over the decades.

The county’s current strategy is to build two sewer systems in business districts on the North Shore in Suffolk County and “coax” homeowners to replace antiquated septic systems with high-tech “denitrification systems.” The challenge, however, is “coaxing” homeowners to replace their septic tanks. The problem with an old system is that unless septic is backing up into the house, most people don’t know their system is failing.

Nitrogen is more harmful to coastal ecosystems than to sources of drinking water. The federal standard for drinking water is 10 milligrams per liter, but anything above one milligram per liter will have an impact on coastal waters and estuaries. In Suffolk County, the average concentration of nitrogen in groundwater is four milligrams per liter, and with nitrogen, there is usually also E. coli.

Across the United States, tremendous improvements in water quality have been made in the decades after passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. The biggest sources of chemical and biological pollution, the so called “point sources,” those releases from manufacturing and sewage treatment plants have been addressed. Sewage treatment plants have been build and improved, and waste streams regulated. The problem now is diverse and small sources of pollution that impact overall water quality and ecology.

Back home in Virginia, the EPA mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to Virginia and all the states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Washington DC. Locally, the Chesapeake Bay TMDL addresses the contamination from nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments. However, there are other contaminants impacting the waterways of Prince William County- E. coli is among them.
 

Prince William county has been subject to TMDLs for bacteria impairments to: Cedar Run and Licking Run, Neabsco Creek, Popes Head, Broad Run, Kettle Run, South Run, Little Bull Run, Bull Run and the Occoquan River; and Tributaries to the Potomac River for years, but little has been done because the diverse sources of the problem.

The Department of Environmental Quality identified the primary sources of bacteria as follows:
  • Cedar Run: livestock (65%), wildlife (26%) upland pervious land (9%), impervious (<1 li="" nbsp="">
  • Neabsco Creek: wildlife (79%), pet sources (20%), livestock (1%)
  • Broad Run: cattle – direct deposition (44%), residential, commercial, industrial (41.5%), wildlife – direct deposition (6.4%) 
  • Bull Run: cattle – direct deposition (56%), wildlife – direct deposition (30%), residential, commercial, industrial (13%) 
  • Occoquan River: residential, commercial, industrial (85.7%), wildlife – direct deposition (9.2%) 
  • Powells Creek: urban – developed land (87%) 
  • Quantico Creek: urban – developed land (94%) 
Prince William County needs to commit funds and work with their partners to develop ongoing program to address the bacterial contamination not coming from the permitted stormwater system. This means stream exclusion of cattle, outreach programs and possibly financial incentives to pump-out septic tanks and upgrade septic systems, programs to develop community pet waste stations, and other programs. Our waterways and environment are worth it.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Iron Bacteria More than a Nuisance

Recently, we had a water clinic in Prince William County. After the results meeting we received the following email. "[Based on your description during the well clinic] it appears that I have iron bacteria in my water system.  When I had my well pump replaced in 2013, the old pump and the pipes in the well were all covered with orangey brown slime.  In addition, there are always orangey red particles trapped in my sediment filter before the water enters the treatment tanks, as well as orangey red stains on my shower tiles, and orangey red water in toilets.  Also, there are brown to black, hard to remove rings in toilets.
I have a water treatment system and I collected two (2) sets of samples, before and after the treatment.  My well water before the treatment contains 0.01 mg/L of Iron, but the greensand tank with Potassium Permanganate appears to reduce that concentration to below detection limit.  If so, then why do I have iron and/or iron bacteria in bathrooms past the treatment system?  Perhaps the iron in the toilet water comes from the rusting metal equipment and bolts inside the flush tanks, but that would not explain the rusty stains on my shower tiles.  My well is 400 ft. deep, with the pump at 320 ft., and the water level at 60 ft.  I consider shocking my well with chlorine solution, but first I would like to verify if that is the right approach."

The test for iron does not test for iron bacteria. Iron Bacteria are small living organisms which naturally occur in soil and water. These nuisance bacteria depend on oxidation of iron and manganese for “food.” These bacteria form the characteristic deposits of “rust”, and a slimy build up that does not test positive for iron. The most common bacteria known to feed on iron are thiobacillus ferrooxidans and leptospriillum feffooxidans. There are also acidohillic iron bacteria, like the autotrophi ferrobaccillus ferroxidans that are associate with the acidic environment or mines and not often seen in groundwater wells.

Iron bacteria can be a huge nuisance. These harmless bacteria can foul a well, damage pumps, stain plumbing fixtures, clog pipes, faucets, showerheads, and produce unpleasant tastes and odors in drinking water. Yet, water is very rarely tested for iron bacteria since very few certified laboratories conduct the test. Confirmation is usually based on visual symptoms in the water, including the slimy brown/red appearance (often most noticeable in the toilet tank) and a slight musty odor. There are no drinking water standards for iron bacteria since there are no health implications. A true “Iron Bacteria Test” involves an 8 day bacteria culture. These tests cost around $40-$80 and require a sterile sample bottle and collection method as all bacteria tests require. Also, once the iron bacteria have infected a well and plumbing system is very difficult to get rid of. Treatment of heavily infected wells may be only partially successful, but often that’s enough.

Iron bacteria often produce unpleasant tastes and odors commonly reported as: "swampy," "oily or petroleum," "cucumber," "sewage," "rotten vegetation," or "musty." The taste or odor may be more noticeable after the water has not been used for some time and are not easily explained by other causes. Iron bacteria do not produce the "rotten egg" smell common to hydrogen sulfide, but do create an environment where sulfur bacteria can grow and produce hydrogen sulfide. There is often a discoloration of the water with the iron bacteria causing a slight yellow, orange, red or brown tint to the water. It is sometimes possible to see a rainbow colored, oil-like sheen on the water. Though the classic symptom of iron bacteria is a rust colored slime, but may be yellow, brown, or grey.

You can order an Iron Bacteria Test from National Testing Laboratories- that’s where I got my test. They have an assay test for “Iron Related Bacteria” present in a water sample. Iron bacteria once introduced into the well will not get better, but continue to get worse destroying your pump and ultimately fouling the well. Along the way there will be a perceived deterioration in the quality of the water. Although iron bacteria can make water unpleasant in taste or smell, there is no health risk associated with the bacteria. They are harmless, but annoying. 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.

If the wall is fouled then physical removal is done as a first step in these heavily infected wells where the functioning of the pump and well production have already been impacted by the bacterial slime buildup. The pumping equipment in the well must be removed and cleaned, which is usually a job for a well contractor or pump installer. The well casing is then scrubbed using (disinfected) brushes or other tools. Physical removal is usually followed by chemical treatment with chlorine (or less commonly acids). Chlorine is inexpensive and easy to use, but may have limited effectiveness and may require repeated treatments. Effective treatment requires sufficient chlorine strength and time in contact with the bacteria, and is often improved with agitation. Though typically a chlorine concentration of 200 parts per million for decontamination of a well, a higher concentration is recommended by the literature for iron bacteria. Recommended concentrations are between 500-1,000 parts per million. Be warned that too high a concentration can make the well alkaline and reduce effectiveness. In addition high concentrations of chlorine may affect water conditioning equipment, appliances such as dishwashers, and septic systems. You may want to check with the manufacturer of the appliances before chlorinating.

Though it is relatively easy to bypass equipment, iron bacteria may remain in the untreated units and reintroduce the iron bacteria into the plumbing system. The recommended strategy is to treat the well with a 500-1,000 parts per million of chlorine and then dilute the remaining water in the well. This can be accomplished by allowing a significant amount of the water to runoff to a safe disposal location using hoses until the water runs clear, and allow the well to refill and dilute the concentration then introduce the water into the house water system to disinfect the household treatment units, appliances and piping with lower concentrations circulated through the water system. I use chlorine test strips to get an idea of the level of chlorine in the well.

I found my iron bacteria problem before it fouled my well or plumbing system. Only a small amount of iron bacteria had begun to build up around the flapper in my toilet tanks. The ATU unit of my alternative septic system caused the iron bacteria in that tank to grow uncontrollably. The same thing happens with Iron Filters that use air injection-they actually increase bacterial slime and make things worse. Filters using chlorine injection work or a simple chlorine injection system works quite well at controlling the problems of order and staining quite well. However, it is best to knock the problem back in the well and then retreat every two to three years. Every time I treat my well and plumbing system, I finish the process by scrubbing my septic tanks and restarting the septic system. This reminds me that I need to open up my ATU tank and take a look...it is probably time to treat my well again. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Wells of Prince William County 2017

Every Year as part of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program Prince William County Extension holds a drinking water clinics for well owners. This year the clinic was oversubscribed and there will be a second sampling date on June 7th . The first group of samples were  taken March 29th 2017 and 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 $55 to the well owner.


What we test for 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 101 private wells tested in the first round in Prince William County in 2017.

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) limits. Though private wells do not fall under the regulatory authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Safe Drinking Water Act, the SDW act has primary and secondary drinking water standards that we use for comparison. Primary standards are ones that can impact health and from the tested substances include: coliform bacteria, E. coli bacteria, nitrate, lead, and arsenic. Secondary standards impact taste or the perceived quality of the water.

As in last year, the 2017 Prince William County water clinic found that almost 28% of the wells tested present for coliform bacteria-this was a lower percentage than the overall program finds. 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.

Four of the homes tested positive for E coli. 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 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 65 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.

In years past the water clinic has found almost 20% of wells tested positive for lead. This year we had 6.9% of homes have first flush lead levels above the SDWA maximum contaminant level of 0.015 Mg/L. After the first flush only two homes had lead levels above the 0.15 mg/L level; however, many scientists do not believe that any level of lead is safe to drink over an extended period of time. In the homes that had elevated lead in the first draw, it tends to be negatively correlated with pH values. Houses built before 1988 when the ban on lead went into effect and had low pH water had higher lead concentrations. Lead leaches into water primarily as a result of corrosion of plumbing and well components, but can also result from flaking of scale from brass fittings and well components unrelated to corrosion and corrosion control techniques such as adjusting pH or alkalinity that are commonly used to neutralize aggressive water will not work in those cases. For most instances, though, a neutralizing filter and lead removing activated carbon filters can be used to remove lead. Recently, some home water treatment companies are offering in home treatment systems that neutralize the water and add orthophosphate other phosphate solution to coat the piping to prevent further corrosion. It should work, but I have never seen such a home system and am not aware of any testing. It is important to note that elevated lead concentrations were still observed in homes built after 1988 and in one home with normal pH and built after 2000.

Iron and manganese are naturally occurring elements commonly found in groundwater in this part of the country. 9.9% of the wells tested exceed the iron standard and 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 and discolored water. 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. Water softeners can remove low levels of iron, but are not recommended for just this purpose. 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. 9.9% 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 and/acid neutralizing systems. There two homes where this turned out to be the case.

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. This year we had a well test at 505.7 mg/L, but overall on 15.8% of homes tested had hard water. Given the number of homes with elevated sodium and our local geology, it is probably a reflection of the number of homes with water softeners.

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 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 if your water like mine is only modestly hard.

For the second 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 8, 2017

Keeping an Eye on Drought

from Drought Monitor May 2, 2017

Last year was a dry year. By last fall, the beginning of the water year almost 85% of Virginia was experiencing abnormally dry conditions. There was very little snow around here this winter. Spring continued to deliver less rain than normal in the region and large areas of moderate drought began to build in north and central Virginia covering most of Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier Counties. The rain and snow are essential. The good news is that spring rains have been falling, since the date of the drought report data (last Tuesday) it rained 1.5 inches as measured a my rain gauge.

Rainfall and snow melt are the water that flows to the rivers and streams of our region ultimately feeding the Potomac River, Occoquan Reservoir and Lake Manassas, but also percolates into the ground and recharges the groundwater that serves private drinking water wells and community wells that draw their water supply from groundwater and contributes to streams; some of the water flowing in rivers comes from seepage of groundwater into the streambed. Groundwater supplies a significant portion of Prince William, Loudoun Counties and almost all of Fauquier County with drinking water, in addition Virginia is still a very rural state that needs the rain for agriculture.

The water level in a groundwater well usually fluctuates naturally during the year. Groundwater levels tend to be highest in the early spring in response to winter snowmelt and spring rainfall when the groundwater is recharged. Groundwater levels begin to fall in May and typically continue to decline during summer as plants and trees use the available shallow groundwater to grow and streamflow draws water. Natural groundwater levels usually reach their lowest point in late September or October when fall rains begins to recharge the groundwater again. The natural fluctuations of groundwater levels are most pronounced in shallower wells and those in fractured rock systems that are most susceptible to drought.

Unless there is an earthquake or other geological event groundwater changes are not abrupt and problems with water supply tend to happen slowly as demand increases with population growth and recharge is impacted by adding paved roads, driveways, houses and other impervious surfaces. Slowly, over time groundwater levels respond to these changes. The U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) collects real time groundwater monitoring data from over 160 groundwater wells in Virginia. Many measure groundwater conditions daily and can be viewed online. The USGS Water Resources system has undergoing a transition to a new data management system that allows you to play with the data and highlights provisional data.

One of the Virginia wells, 49V1 is just up the road from me in the same groundwater basin and serves as the proxy of the condition of my well. The time span that I have been tracking the well data is somewhat short, but it does appear that there is a slight downward trend despite the data beginning at the end of a drought. This is a sign that the present groundwater use may not be sustainable. No studies have been done that attempt to quantify what the total available water is within the county or what the current demand is, so it’s hard to know how significant this is. The nine years of data do clearly show the natural annual fluctuation of the water level within a groundwater well which is cool to see.