As a homeowner that receives water from a private well, there are problems that can arise from time to time. Testing is the best way to uncover contaminants in your water supply that may be hidden, for example like arsenic or radon which may be harmful and are odorless, colorless and do not affect the taste of your water. Other contaminants can be uncovered just by turning on your tap.
Sediment issues can affect the color, clarity, smell and taste of your water. These problems are caused by dissolved minerals or metals in your water. If you turn on your tap and are greeted with a rotten egg smell, you may have increased levels of hydrogen sulfide also known as sulfur present in your well water.
Here are the answers to a few of the most frequently asked questions about sulfur and what you can do to remove it from your water supply.
What is hydrogen sulfide?
Hydrogen sulfide is a naturally occurring gas that can be found in some groundwater. It is created by decaying organic material like you might find in wetlands. It can also be present in wells that are drilled in shale, sandstone, or near coal or peat deposits.
How does hydrogen sulfide get into my drinking water?
Sulfur in your water is caused by two common sources; hydrogen sulfide and sulfate reducing bacteria. Both can cause the familiar rotten egg smell and while a nuisance it is usually harmless and poses no health risk at the concentrations typically found in residential well water.
The rotten egg smell is produced when sulfur and oxygen are present in the soil or are the result of the waste from non-harmful bacteria that ingests and digests small amounts of sulfate minerals.
What are the health effects of hydrogen sulfide in drinking water?
Thankfully there are no significant health effects caused by hydrogen sulfide ingestion. The EPA considers sulfur a secondary contaminant with no direct threat to health. That being said, it is a nuisance as both the smell and taste of your water will be unpleasant. In higher concentrations hydrogen sulfide contamination can cause a slight laxative effect and can lead to nausea.
The primary problem with hydrogen sulfide contamination is that it is corrosive to metals like iron, steel, copper and brass. It can cause discoloration and staining of clothing and fixtures. Food cooked with water containing sulfur can taste bitter or be discolored as well.
The danger lies in the secondary effects of corrosion. If left untreated hydrogen sulfide can cause corrosion that can lead to increased levels of lead (if present in the solder joints of your plumbing) and copper in your water.
Should I test my water for hydrogen sulfide?
It's a pretty good bet that if your water has that distinctive rotten egg smell along with a slightly bitter taste that sulfur is present. Testing is difficult because hydrogen sulfide gas dissipates quickly. The best solution is to have a well water professional conduct an onsite test, especially if the odor or taste is excessive. Levels higher than 5mg/l may make treatment difficult and may require special testing to determine the actual levels present.
What can I do if hydrogen sulfide is present in my drinking water?
Treatment options are available that can remove sulfur from your drinking water. Common treatment usually consists of chlorination or aeration followed by filtration using a granular activated carbon system. This treatment also effectively removes iron, manganese, and other contaminants as a secondary benefit. Speak with your well water professional about the process, installation and costs of a chlorination/filtration system. Installing a system that can accomplish multiple tasks like a chlorination/filtration system is a cost-effective solution that can ensure your family's health and safety.
Hydrogen sulfide contamination is not dangerous and is treatable. The best option is to speak with your well water professional. They can test and analyze your water and give you detailed information about your best course of action.