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  • Writer's pictureMike Roberts

Testing the Waters: Is Your Private Well Water Safe?

Municipal water is treated and delivered under strict health guidelines set at the state and federal levels. But if you own rural property with its own private well, the applicable regulations in many states are less stringent, federal laws governing public water systems do not apply, and owners are not required to treat or test their well water. Therefore, it’s a good idea to regularly test your well water. Here is what you need to know.

Why you should get your well water tested

You would think living in the countryside would mean clean, clear water coming from your well. But contaminants can infiltrate your well water source. Possible impurities include:

Coliform bacteria — These bacteria reside in the gut of warm-blooded animals as well as plants and soil. A test for “total coliforms” reveals whether these bacteria are in your water and if so, how much. Their presence can also indicate the possibility of viruses, parasites and fungi as well.

Fecal coliforms, including E. coli — These are a particular form of coliforms that live in the digestive systems of humans and other warm-blooded animals. Their presence indicates there may be feces and harmful germs in your well water that can cause illness.

Nitrates — These contaminants come from many sources, including animal waste, fertilizers, septic or sewage contamination, fertilizers, and agricultural runoff. You consume some nitrates in foods, but high concentrations in drinking water can make you sick.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) — These are chemicals related to petroleum production and fuels such as benzene, carbon tetrachloride, toluene, trichloroethylene, and methyl tertiary-butyl ethene (MTBE). They can enter ground and aquifer water supplies and, at certain unacceptable levels, cause sickness. Check with your local environmental department or the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine which VOCs may be a problem in your area.

pH level—Water can range from highly alkaline to acidic. It takes a pH test kit to determine its composition. High alkaline water, often called “hard water,” can ruin appliances, water heaters and faucets over time.

You can also test your private well water for other contaminants, including heavy metals such as arsenic, selenium and uranium. It’s also worth testing for fluoride and sulfates.

When should you get the well water tested?

It is a good idea to test well water once per year, usually in spring. This is especially true for water used for human and animal consumption. If you are considering the purchase of property with a private well, ask the owner for a recent test report or order one yourself as part of your inspection of the property.

You should also test:

  • When the local health department notifies of specific contamination to area water supplies.

  • When your water changes in color, clarity or smell.

  • When there has been a chemical spill or flooding in your area.

  • When there is an outbreak of waterborne illness nearby.

Who do you call?

Contact your county or state health department for a list of certified laboratories in your area for testing. The EPA also has a hotline you can contact for help: (800) 426-4791.

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