The first step to protect your health and the health of your family is learning about what may pollute your source of drinking water. Potential contamination may occur naturally, or as a result of human activity.
What are some naturally occurring sources of pollution?
- micro-organisms: Bacteria, viruses, parasites and other microorganisms are sometimes found in water. Shallow wells — those with water close to ground level — are at most risk. Runoff, or water flowing over the land surface, may pick up these pollutants from wildlife and soils. This is often the case after flooding. Some of these organisms can cause a variety of illnesses. Symptoms include nausea and diarrhea. These can occur shortly after drinking contaminated water. The effects could be short-term yet severe (similar to food poisoning), or might recur frequently or develop slowly over a long time.
- radionuclides: Radionuclides are radioactive elements, such as uranium and radium. They may be present in underlying rock and ground water.
- radon: Radon isa gas that is a natural product of the breakdown of uranium in the soil and can also pose a threat. Radon is most dangerous when inhaled, and contributes to lung cancer. Although soil is the primary source, using household water containing radon contributes to elevated indoor radon levels. Radon is less dangerous when consumed in water, but remains a risk to health.
- nitrates and nitrites: Although high nitrate levels are usually due to human activities (see below), they may be found naturally in ground water. They come from the breakdown of nitrogen compounds in the soil. Flowing ground water picks them up from the soil. Drinking large amounts of nitrates and nitrites is particularly threatening to infants (for example, when mixed in formula).
- heavy metals: Underground rocks and soils may contain arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and selenium. However, these contaminants are not often found in household wells at dangerous levels from natural sources.
- fluoride: Fluoride is helpful in dental health, so many water systems add small amounts to drinking water. However, excessive consumption of naturally occurring fluoride can damage bone tissue. High levels of fluoride occur naturally in some areas. It may discolor teeth, but this is not a health risk.
What human activities can pollute ground water?
What You Can Do...
Private, individual wells are the responsibility of the homeowner. To help protect your well, here are some steps you can take:
Have your water tested periodically. It is recommended that water be tested every year for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, and pH levels. If you suspect other contaminants, test for those. Always use a state-certified laboratory that conducts drinking water tests. Since these can be expensive, spend some time identifying potential problems. Consult your InterNACHI inspector for information about how to go about water testing.
Testing more than once a year may be warranted in special situations if:
- someone in your household is pregnant or nursing;
- there are unexplained illnesses in the family;
- your neighbors find a dangerous contaminant in their water;
- you note a change in your water's taste, odor, color or clarity;
- there is a spill of chemicals or fuels into or near your well; or
- you replace or repair any part of your well system.
Identify potential problems as the first step to safe-guarding your drinking water. The best way to start is to consult a local expert -- someone who knows your area, such as the local health department, agricultural extension agent, a nearby public water system, or a geologist at a local university.