What contaminants could be present in my well water

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

What contaminants could be present in my well water, and how can I test for them?

—Ruth Zandstra, Highland, IN

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), even when there is no human-caused pollution, ground water, including well water, can contain a number of natural impurities that result from conditions in the watershed or in the ground. Water moving through underground rocks and soils can pick up magnesium, calcium and chlorides. Some ground water naturally contains elements such as arsenic, boron, selenium or radon, a gas formed by the natural breakdown of radioactive uranium in soil. Whether these natural contaminants will cause health problems depends upon how much is present.

Well water can also be affected by improperly built or maintained nearby septic systems, leaking or abandoned underground storage tanks, storm-water drains that discharge chemicals into ground water, chemical spills at local industrial sites, or improper disposal of pesticides, fertilizers or animal manures. In 1999, nearly 500 people were sickened and one child died in an outbreak of deadly E. coli bacteria at the Washington County Fair near Albany, New York. Health officials concluded that the water supply had been tainted when rainwater washed over cow feces from a cattle barn on the fair grounds and ran into an underground aquifer tapped by the fair’s wells.

About 15 percent of Americans obtain their drinking water from wells, cisterns and springs. Unlike public water supplies, private wells in the U.S. are not regulated or regularly checked for contaminants. Therefore, homeowners should periodically check their well water for the presence of potentially dangerous substances.

A good place to begin is with your local health department, which may provide free testing for contaminants, or, at the very least, advice on how to proceed. If local testing is not an option, the EPA suggests that you find a state-certified lab through the yellow pages or online. Such labs can perform tests for bacteria, pesticides, nitrates, heavy metals and other possible contaminants.

It is also possible to order specific tests from online labs, such as Watertesters.com. The company can send a water testing kit with a prepaid envelope for mailing in samples. Results are then e-mailed back to the well owner. As another option, individuals can do their own well testing with home kits, available from companies such as Promolife. Lab results can then be compared with public safety standards. If toxic levels are identified, you can discuss results with your local health department to determine how to rectify the situation.

CONTACTS: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, (800) 426-4791 (Safe Drinking Water Hotline), www.epa.gov/safewater/pwells1.html; Watertesters.com, (978) 692-8842, www.watertesters.com; Promolife, (888) 742-3404, www.promolife.com.