Health Matters: You had your water tested. Now what?

By Jim Hyde | Contributor

Well water is constantly subject to change caused by the level and flow of ground water, human activity and changes in land use. Hence, it’s critical to test your water on a regular basis. No one else is going to do it for you.

HM—water testing

What’s in your water?

Currently the Vermont Department of Health recommends that this be done about every five years. The costs of a panel of tests—from about $150 to $250 depending on the tests ordered —is far from trivial. Amortized over five years, however, the cost comes to only about $30 to $50 per year. Compare this to what you spend for your phone or cable TV each month.

Depending on the laboratory you use, you will receive a report that identifies the contaminants, the levels found and the acceptable range. If you are lucky, all of the test results will fall well within this acceptable range. Unless you have some reason to believe that your source water might have been contaminated, you can forget things for another five years.

Identifying the problem

It would not be unusual, living in Charlotte, if one or another of the tests indicates a potential problem. According to one water treatment specialist I spoke with who covers the Charlotte area, the most commonly reported problems relate to hardness and high sulphur levels. Hardness, by itself, is not a health problem, though it can result in deposits within plumbing fixtures, etching of glass and cookware, and scale in hot water heaters reducing their efficiency and increasing energy costs.

Less likely will be a high bacterial count, either coliform or E. coli. This is a finding that should be taken seriously and acted upon immediately. While coliform does not necessarily indicate a direct threat, its presence does suggest that disease-causing pathogens may have gained access to your well water. Experts suggest that you not use water containing coliform or E. coli for drinking or cooking until the source has been identified, your well has been treated and decontaminated, and a retest indicates that it is safe to drink.

Less likely, too, but of intense interest due to recent news accounts from Flint, Michigan, and other cities, are copper and lead contamination. The probable source of these contaminants is your own household plumbing fixtures and solder joints. Lead-based solder has been banned since 1989 but may still be found in older plumbing systems and as a constituent of brass. As a result, lead can leach out into water as it passes over fixture surfaces. Copper also can leach out of copper pipes and fixtures, especially in the presence of highly corrosive water. If you have high levels of sulphur in your water it may exacerbate this problem greatly.

Finding a remedy

The good news is that most of these problems, once identified, can be remediated with the help of an experienced water-treatment professional. Remediation steps will generally involve the following.

First, identifying the source of the contamination. Is it in the source water itself? Is it due to a poor seal or a cracked casing in the well? Have bacteria been introduced into the well by accident, for example, during pump replacement? Is the source of lead or copper the distribution system in your home? Identification and removal of the source is absolutely critical. It makes no sense to remove a contaminant that is only going to reappear.

Second, choosing an appropriate removal strategy. A great many technologies are available to homeowners. Most commonly they will i nvolve some form of filtration (a simple passive filter or a more sophisticated reverse osmosis filter), possibly followed by use of an adsorption filter, and finally some form of disinfection. Commonly used disinfection technologies include UV light and chlorination.

In exploring water treatment options, you may hear the terms “point of use” and “point of entry.” These simply refer to where the filtering or decontamination process takes place. If it’s at the “point of use” it might just be a filter on your sink tap or in your refrigerator. If it’s at the “point of entry” it will be a system that treats all of the water coming into the house, not just a single tap or faucet. There are obvious advantages to this approach although it is far more costly.

Third, whether you use a point-of-use filter or install a whole-house system, you must maintain it. When was the last time you changed the filter on your tap or in your refrigerator? If you do not change these regularly, you might as well lick the ground for all of the good they will do you. In fact, there is evidence that unchanged filters will concentrate the contaminants already present in your water and deliver them to you at higher levels than if you used no filter at all.

Fourth, remaining vigilant for any changes in the taste, appearance, odor or color of the water you drink. Remember, if you rely on well water no one is going to be vigilant for you.

Remediation is not a DIY project

I cannot emphasize enough that successful remediation of these problems is not for the “do-it-your-selfer” even though some equipment sellers would have you believe otherwise. There are no “silver bullet,” “one size fits all” solutions. Successfully treating and decontaminating your drinking water requires a mix of skills, experience and an understanding of water chemistry. Make sure the water treatment professional you choose is certified and has field experience in your area. Finally, consult the professionals available at both the Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Health. I have found them incredibly knowledgeable and very helpful.

James Hyde lives in Charlotte and is emeritus associate professor of public health at the Tufts University School of Medicine. This is the second of three articles on drinking water issues most commonly faced by Charlotte residents. The first article dealt with common well-water contaminants and is available at charlottenewsvt.org. The final article will discuss strategies for protecting source water.


Drinking Water Websites and Resources:

Remediation and Decontamination:

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Great overview of well-water treatment options:

http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/private/wells/treatment.html

Overview of common well-water diseases and contaminants:

http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/private/wells/disease/lead.html

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

Excellent tutorial on well-water issues specific to New England states:

https://www3.epa.gov/region1/eco/drinkwater/private_well_owners.html

State-Specific Drinking Water Resources:

Massachusetts:

Overview and information on specific contaminants and remediation strategies:

http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/massdep/water/drinking/

New Jersey:

Overview printable PDF pamphlet:

http://www.state.nj.us/health/eoh/hhazweb/well.pdf

Vermont:

Drinking water and ground water protection. Department of Environmental Conservation: Entry portal for all Vermont specific resources and information on ground water.

http://www.drinkingwater.vt.gov/

Department of Health access portal for drinking water information including testing:

http://healthvermont.gov/enviro/water/safe_water.aspx

Other Resources: (These are sponsored sites, so be aware that they may be a bit biased. However, these three sites in particular also have some very good basic information).

National Ground Water Association:

http://www.wellowner.org/basics/

Well Water Guide Network:

http://www.wellwaterguide.net/

American Ground Water Trust:

http://www.agwt.org/

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