The news is full of dire warnings about pollutants, toxins, bacteria, and other worrisome extras turning up in drinking water. While most water from underground aquifers is safe to drink, homeowners need to test all the potential contaminants, including “forever chemicals” that do not have a color, taste or smell.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rules that protect public drinking water systems do not apply to individual water systems, such as privately owned wells. As an individual water system owner, it is up to you to ensure that your water is safe to drink.
Water Quality Indicators
Several water quality indicators (WQIs) and contaminants that should be tested for in your water are listed below. A WQI test is a test that measures the presence and amount of certain germs in water. In most cases, the presence of WQIs is not the cause of sickness; however, they are easy to test for, and their presence may indicate the presence of sewage and other disease-causing germs from human and/or animal feces. Thomas Hut, Bureau of Special Services supervisor at Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County, said:
“It takes a little bit of maintenance, like anything on your home […] water sampling is a snapshot in time, so more testing will provide a clearer picture of what’s in the well.”
He also encouraged residents to consider switching, if possible, to a public system that’s tested, treated and regulated, Hut and other area groundwater experts say. Examples of Water Quality Indicators include:
Coliform bacteria are microbes found in warm-blooded animals’ digestive systems, soil, plants, and surface water. These microbes typically do not make you sick; however, because microbes that cause disease are hard to test for in the water, “total coliforms” are tested instead. If the total coliform count is high, harmful germs like viruses, bacteria, and parasites might also be found in the water.
Fecal Coliforms / Escherichia coli (E. coli)
Fecal coliform bacteria are a specific kind of total coliform. The feces (or stool) and digestive systems of humans and warm-blooded animals contain millions of fecal coliforms. E. coli is part of the fecal coliform group and may be tested for by itself. Fecal coliforms and E. coli are usually harmless. However, a positive test may mean that feces and harmful germs have found their way into your water system. These harmful germs can cause diarrhea, dysentery, and hepatitis.
The pH level tells you how acidic or basic your water is. The pH level of the water can change how your water looks and tastes. If your water’s pH is too low or too high, it could damage your pipes, cause heavy metals like lead to leak out of the pipes into the water, and eventually make you sick.
Test regularly for these contaminants
Wells tend to get contaminated in numerous ways, and a myriad of toxins can seep in. But experts such as hydrologist Mike Ekberg of the Miami Conservancy District recommend testing these five contaminants regularly — bacteria, arsenic, nitrate, manganese and lead and copper.
Specifically, total coliform bacteria are one of the first tests well owners should have done, said Ekberg, manager for water resource monitoring and analysis at the Miami Conservancy District. According to the CDC, coliform bacteria are microbes found in warm-blooded animals’ digestive systems, in soil, on plants, and in surface water.
A positive coliform test indicates that the well is vulnerable to contaminants at the surface that are seeping down into the aquifer. Total coliform bacteria themselves aren’t necessarily harmful. But they could be an indication that disease-causing bacteria called pathogens are finding their way into the well, Ekberg said.
“So if you’re going to do a total coliform test, run an E coli test, too,” he said. “That’s a surefire indicator that if you have E coli, you have fecal contamination.”
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in rocks and soil that can be present in groundwater. It can affect several organs, including the liver and skin; digestive, respiratory and nervous systems.
Nitrates commonly get into groundwater from the use of various fertilizers. So if farms surround a well, homeowners should definitely consider nitrates testing, Ekberg said. They can cause health issues, particularly to infants and pregnant women, the CDC said. Nitrates can be removed from drinking water through treatment processes such as ion exchange, distillation and reverse osmosis, the agency said.
It’s a naturally occurring element that can cause loss of appetite, slowed growth, reproductive issues and anemia. Some groundwater in the Dayton region has elevated levels of manganese, Ekberg said.
‘Forever chemicals’ found in 24 drinking water systems in the region
Lead and copper: These metals also are naturally occurring but typically aren’t found in the groundwater, Ekberg said. Instead, they tend to contaminate water as it goes through the plumbing system in older homes. Replacing the plumbing system will eliminate lead and copper. But if that’s too costly, another option is to flush the water system ― if it hasn’t been used for several hours ― for up to two minutes before using, the CDC said.
What are ‘forever chemicals?’
Military bases, airports, firefighter training sites and manufacturing plants, all of which are in the Dayton region, might be PFAS sources. But that doesn’t necessarily mean all nearby wells will get contaminated with the substances ― dubbed forever chemicals for their longevity ― said Abinash Agrawal, an earth and environmental sciences professor at Wright State University.
PFAS, or per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, were once widely used in manufacturing, carpeting, upholstery, food packaging and other commercial and military uses. Notably, the substances were — and still are, in some places — used to extinguish fires that couldn’t be extinguished with water alone.
When your water supply comes from a private or a community well as opposed to a municipal agency, you’ve got to do a little extra digging, as it were. The EPA has a comprehensive state-by-state guide to private drinking-water wells across the country, but it’s ridiculously inconsistent once again.
There’s no way to be sure your water is safe unless you have it tested yourself. Start by calling the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline, which will connect you with a local water testing agency. You can also use the Water Quality Association’s search page to find an approved testing company in your state.