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Groundwater awareness: a matter of public health.

People who own a private, household well are their own water system managers. So when it comes to ensuring a safe water supply, it's important for these homeowners to know the basics about well construction, maintenance, and water quality.

Public health authorities such as sanitarians can play an important role in educating private well owners about good groundwater and well stewardship. There's no better time to do so than during National Ground Water Awareness Week (March 9-15).

The National Ground Water Association (NGWA), which started Ground Water Awareness Week nine years ago, has a number of tools that can be useful in helping you educate the public. You can access some of those tools by going to one of NGWA's Web sites, Wellowner.org (www.wellowner.org), and clicking on the Awareness Week tab.

NGWA recommends that private well owners test their water annually for bacteria, nitrates, and anything of local concern. A local concern might be a manmade or naturally occurring constituent particular to the groundwater in an area.

A common mistake homeowners make is to test the well water without first making sure that the water well system is clean. Testing water from a dirty well can lead to false positives. A dirty well also can create an environment in which contaminants such as certain types of bacteria can flourish.

A qualified water well system contractor can determine if the water well system needs cleaning by conducting an anaerobic bacteria test, a coliform test, or other tests that indicate an accumulation of debris in the well. While most coliform bacteria are not harmful, they serve as indicators of possible harmful bacteria. Other possible indicators of a dirty well are cloudy water, low water flow, and taste and odor problems.

If any test results indicate the presence of anaerobic bacteria or coliform bacteria--or if the well owner is experiencing cloudy water, low water flow, or taste and odor problems--NGWA recommends having the well cleaned by a qualified water well system contractor prior to any servicing of the well system.

A common misconception among homeowners is that chlorine alone will clean a well--the more chlorine, the better. Chlorine, however, can serve as an effective disinfectant only after debris and other solid material are removed from the well. Well cleaning must remove debris from the well bottom, and may involve cleaning of other well components if a qualified water well system contractor determines that there is a need.

Any water treatment devices that are part of the water well system should be checked and serviced by the installer according to specifications. A water treatment device that is not regularly maintained can harbor harmful bacteria.

NGWA also recommends that well owners test the water under the following circumstances:

* if there is a change in the taste, odor, or appearance of the well water, or if a problem such as a broken well cap occurs or a new contamination source appears;

* if family members or houseguests have recurrent incidents of gastrointestinal illness; or

* if an infant is living in the home.

Well owners should also check with the local health or environmental health department for recommendations about the type and frequency of testing needed for their specific location.

Now let's consider some potential water quality issues.

Coliform bacteria are a possible indicator of a well's susceptibility to contamination from animal wastes. E. coli originates from septic wastes such as those found in sewage, and it can cause severe illness. Its presence suggests a contamination source such as a poorly performing home septic system in the vicinity of the well; such a system should be repaired or removed by a qualified septic system contractor.

Nitrates, in the vast majority of cases, come from farm or industrial contamination, or septic systems, and they can be dangerous to one's health. The presence of nitrates from fertilizers and septic wastes could indicate a local source of contamination or regionally contaminated groundwater.

Arsenic and radon are examples of water quality concerns that can be present on either a local or a regional basis. Both can be naturally occurring in an aquifer. Arsenic is a semi-metallic element that occurs in rocks, soils, and water that comes into contact with those rocks and soils. Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that comes from the natural radioactive breakdown of uranium in the ground. Exposure to radon comes from two sources: air in the home, which may contain radon that has seeped up through the foundation, and well water.

Arsenic and radon are used here as examples only; they may or may not be a problem in a given area. Each state may recommend or require testing for certain contaminants specific to a locality.

Water testing should be done by a certified water-testing laboratory. To find such a laboratory, contact the appropriate state certification officer by visiting the U.S. EPA Web site at www.epa.gov/safewater/labs/index.html.

Should any contaminants remain present at levels that constitute a health concern after proper cleaning and disinfection of the well, a water treatment device may resolve any water quality issues. The specifications of such devices should match the substances for which the well is being treated and the concentrations of those substances.

For more information about these issues, visit www.wellowner.org.
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Title Annotation:EH Update
Author:Treyens, Cliff
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Date:Mar 1, 2008
Words:882
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