Well water and Human Health

 

The first step to protect your health and the health of your family is learning about what may pollute your source of drinking water. Potential contamination may occur naturally, or as a result of human activity.

What are Some Naturally Occurring Sources of Pollution?

  • Microorganisms: Bacteria, viruses, parasites and other microorganisms are sometimes found in water. Shallow wells — those with water close to ground level — are at most risk. Runoff, or water flowing over the land surface, may pick up these pollutants from wildlife and soils. This is often the case after flooding. Some of these organisms can cause a variety of illnesses. Symptoms include nausea and diarrhea. These can occur shortly after drinking contaminated water. The effects could be short-term yet severe (similar to food poisoning) or might recur frequently or develop slowly over a long time.
  • Radionuclides: Radionuclides are radioactive elements such as uranium and radium. They may be present in underlying rock and ground water
  • Radon: Radon isa gas that is a natural product of the breakdown of uranium in the soil — can also pose a threat. Radon is most dangerous when inhaled and contributes to lung cancer. Although soil is the primary source, using household water containing Radon contributes to elevated indoor Radon levels. Radon is less dangerous when consumed in water, but remains a risk to health.
  • Nitrates and Nitrites: Although high nitrate levels are usually due to human activities (see below), they may be found naturally in ground water. They come from the breakdown of nitrogen compounds in the soil. Flowing ground water picks them up from the soil. Drinking large amounts of nitrates and nitrites is particularly threatening to infants (for example, when mixed in formula).
  • Heavy Metals: Underground rocks and soils may contain arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and selenium. However, these contaminants are not often found in household wells at dangerous levels from natural sources.
  • Fluoride: Fluoride is helpful in dental health, so many water systems add small amounts to drinking water. However, excessive consumption of naturally occurring fluoride can damage bone tissue. High levels of fluoride occur naturally in some areas. It may discolor teeth, but this is not a health risk.

 

 

What You Can Do

Private, individual wells are the responsibility of the homeowner. To help protect your well, here are some steps you can take:

Have your water tested periodically. It is recommended that water be tested every year for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, and pH levels. If you suspect other contaminants, test for those. Always use a state certified laboratory that conducts drinking water tests. Since these can be expensive, spend some time identifying potential problems.

Testing more than once a year may be warranted in special situations:

  • someone in your household is pregnant or nursing
  • there are unexplained illnesses in the family
  • your neighbors find a dangerous contaminant in their water
  • you note a change in water taste, odor, color or clarity
  • there is a spill of chemicals or fuels into or near your well
  • when you replace or repair any part of your well system

Identify potential problems as the first step to safeguarding your drinking water. The best way to start is to consult a local expert, someone that knows your area, such as the local health department, agricultural extension agent, a nearby public water system, or a geologist at a local university (See more detailed information below).

Be aware of your surroundings. As you drive around your community, take note of new construction. Check the local newspaper for articles about new construction in your area.

Check the paper or call your local planning or zoning commission for announcements about hearings or zoning appeals on development or industrial projects that could possibly affect your water.

Attend these hearings, ask questions about how your water source is being protected, and don’t be satisfied with general answers. Make statements like “If you build this landfill, (just an example) what will you do to ensure that my water will be protected.” See how quickly they answer and provide specifics about what plans have been made to specifically address that issue.

Identify Potential Problem Sources

To start your search for potential problems, begin close to home. Do a survey around your well:

  • is there livestock nearby?
  • are pesticides being used on nearby agricultural crops or nurseries?
  • do you use lawn fertilizers near the well?
  • is your well “downstream” from your own or a neighbor’s septic system?
  • is your well located near a road that is frequently salted or sprayed with de-icers during winter months?
  • do you or your neighbors dispose of household wastes or used motor oil in the backyard, even in small amounts?

If any of these items apply, it may be best to have your water tested and talk to your local public health department or agricultural extension agent to find way to change some of the practices which can affect your private well.

In addition to the immediate area around your well, you should be aware of other possible sources of contamination that may already be part of your community or may be moving into your area. Attend any local planning or appeal hearings to find out more about the construction of facilities that may pollute your drinking water. Ask to see the environmental impact statement on the project. See if underground drinking water sources has been addressed. If not, ask why.

Common Sources of Potiental Ground Water Contamination

Category Contaminant Source
Agricultural
  • Animal burial areas
  • Drainage fields/wells
  • Animal feedlots
  • Irrigation sites
  • Fertilizer storage/use
  • Manure spreading areas/pits, lagoons
  • Pesticide storage/use
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