Thursday, March 17, 2011

Test Your Well Water

If your home drinking water is supplied from a private well, you are responsible for ensuring that your water is safe to drink. Unlike public drinking water systems serving many people which have experts regularly checking the water quality, no one is looking out for families with their own wells. The US EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act does not protect private wells. You are responsible for ensuring that the water supplied from your private well is safe to drink and palatable. Managing your water is an ongoing process like managing your health.

The US EPA estimates that 10% of America obtains their drinking water from private wells. In Virginia that number is much higher, 34% of the population is estimated to obtain their drinking water from private groundwater wells. The Master Well Owner Network (MWON) is an organization of trained volunteers dedicated to promoting the proper construction, maintenance, and management of private water systems (wells, springs, and cisterns) in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, and Virginia. The Cooperative Extension Services in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia manage the program and have numerous publications and fact sheets that can help homeowners make educated decisions about their drinking water. The volunteers can help homeowners interpret their test results and make educated decisions about what treatment might be appropriate and desirable.

According to the US EPA actual events of groundwater contamination have historically been rare and typically do not occur at levels likely to pose health concerns. City and county health departments have local rules and regulations for the installation of wells. The water well test that was performed when you bought your house or installed your well probably only tested for bacteria and nitrates. Due to its protected location underground, most groundwater is naturally clean and free from pollution. However, not all groundwater is clean and safe it can become polluted.

Before initially using a water well you should completely test the water for contamination. A good start would be the list of primary and secondary contaminants that the US EPA regulates under the Safe Drinking Water Act and pesticides. This would cover total Coliform and E. Coli bacteria, heavy metals, inorganic chemicals, physical factors (like harness, pH, turbidity, etc.), trihalo methanes, volatile organic chemicals (solvents), and common pesticides, herbicides and PCB’s. These tests are not cheap, but should not be skipped. The Minimum Detection Levels, which are the lowest levels at which the laboratory detects a contaminant with an acceptable degree of accuracy should be below the levels established by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Once the initial full test is completed annual testing of solvents and pesticides may not be necessary unless a local problem is identified or a spill occurs. Occasional testing for these substances should still be done. As development in our modern society increases, there are a growing number of activities that can contaminate our drinking water. Increased population density brings more opportunities for nutrients and chemicals from land disposal practices, septic systems, lawn fertilizers, household cleaners and pest treatments to contribute to water pollution. In reality, the nearest ongoing sources of potential contamination to your drinking water supply is your own or your neighbors septic system drain field.

However, all private water wells should be tested every year for total coliform bacteria, and E Coli, nitrates, total dissolved solids and pH levels at a minimum. Part of the price of your own water supply is maintaining it and testing it. You can not taste bacterial contamination from human and animal waste and you can not taste nitrate nitrite contamination. Since bacterial contamination cannot be detected by taste, smell, or sight, all drinking water wells should be tested at least annually for Coliform bacteria and E Coli. Due to the extra cost (under $20) most health departments only recommend total coliform testing. Total coliform counts give a general indication of the sanitary condition of a water supply and nothing more. Total coliform includes bacteria that are found in the soil, in water that has been influenced by surface water, and in human or animal waste. Fecal coliform is the group of the total coliform that is considered to be present specifically in the gut and feces of warm-blooded animals. E. coli is considered to be the species of coliform bacteria that is the best indicator of fecal pollution and the possible presence of pathogens. If a sample is positive for coliform bacteria a second test for fecal coliform and E Coli can be performed.

Contamination from human and animal waste and chemicals can be real health hazards and should be addressed immediately. However, most of the water quality issues with private wells are from naturally occurring contamination or impurities. These are contaminants or impurities that are produced from the underlying soil and rock geology. From the underlying rocks radionuclides and heavy metals can enter the groundwater. There are areas with natural occurring arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, selenium and fluoride. While some of the symptoms of mineral contamination are obvious, sometimes one symptom can be confused with another. Never buy a treatment system until you have tested your water fully for all heavy metals and hardness, determined if there is a problem and identified the correct solution. Other contaminants may be present that need to be addressed. While many natural contaminants such as iron, sulfate, and manganese are not considered serious health hazards, they can give drinking water an unpleasant taste, odor, or color. The MWON volunteers can help you obtain sampling, and interpret your test results. Do not rely solely on water treatment salespeople for water analysis. The tests they perform are often crude and sometimes misleading. They are selling water treatment.

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