If you own a home with a private well, it is your responsibility to ensure the water used for drinking, cooking and bathing is safe for consumption. In the United States, more than 15 million households get their water from a well. New England is lucky in that it has an ample supply of clean water, but that doesn’t mean homeowners shouldn’t regularly check for possible contaminants.
People who regularly consume contaminated water are at risk of health problems, including gastrointestinal illness, reproductive problems, and neurological disorders. Homes with infants, pregnant women, the elderly or people with compromised immune systems should be especially cautious as they are more susceptible to illness from certain contaminants. Water treatment options are available.
What are the most common water contaminants?
• In New England, radon is commonly found in well water. Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, naturally occurring radioactive gas found in rocks and soil. When water containing radon comes into the home, it is released into the air during everyday tasks, like showering and washing dishes. Radon can accumulate and increase risk of disease, particularly lung cancer.
• Arsenic is another common, naturally-occurring contaminant in New England, with about one in five wells containing at least a small amount of arsenic. Studies have shown that repeatedly drinking water with arsenic during a person’s lifetime can lead to cancer and other chronic ailments, such as cardiovascular or neurological disorders.
• Nitrate is naturally found in many types of food and is safe in small doses, but high levels of nitrate in drinking water can make people sick. Nitrate can originate from flooded sewers or private septic systems, fertilizers and other agricultural runoff. The presence of nitrate in your well also depends on the geology of the land in your neighborhood.
• Volatile organic compounds is the name for industrial chemicals that can be harmful to your health. Contamination from these compounds is largely caused by the location of your home and usually comes from proximity to manufacturing plants or gas stations. One contaminant, MTBE, was once found in gasoline in New Hampshire and Massachusetts and its subsequent contamination of the soil resulted in multiple lawsuits.
• Bacterial contamination, such as E. coli, can get into well water if it is near a flooded sewer or failed septic system. Some bacteria in water are harmless, while other bacteria can cause people to become sick. One form of bacteria, fecal coliform bacteria, indicates feces and other harmful germs have contaminated your water system, which can cause diarrhea, dysentery, and hepatitis.
• Contamination from other sources depends on the location of your well and if you live in a rural or urban area. Some of these include lead, mercury, radium, atrazine and pesticides.
When should I test my water?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend checking your well every spring for mechanical problems and testing for contaminants once a year. You should also conduct a water quality test when other people in your areas have experienced well water problems, if there has been flooding or a major soil disturbance near the well, if your home is near a waste disposal site, if you have recently replaced any part of your well system or if you notice a change in the water quality.
Both New Hampshire and Massachusetts have laboratories associated with their departments of environmental services which can conduct some water testing. However, you are often required to collect the samples. If not done properly, a homeowner can get an inaccurate reading. A professional service, or well water system experts like Skillings & Sons, can advise you on the types of test you need and can help with properly gathering samples.