Health News Digest

June 12, 2006

Going to the Well Once Too Often: The Problems with Well Waterthe old well

By  Michael D. Shaw

Many of us—of a certain age—remember excursions from the big city, to someone’s summer cottage. Invariably, we were treated to the highly-touted wondrously pure water from their well. Usually, the water tasted funny, but we were always assured that this was because it contained healthy minerals, or something.

After all, “natural” IS always better, right? Maybe not.

Bearing in mind that most big cities, including New York, have excellent tap water (Manhattan usually wins top honors in this category), many people still cling to the belief that well water is better simply because it comes from a majestic forest, or farm, or other pristine territory. In reality, though, well water may have more pollutants, toxins, and unknown (but unhealthy) substances than anything that comes from your tap.

In both Europe and the United States, a new series of studies and media reports confirms this finding: that runoff, floods, deterioration of metal pipes, pesticides, and latent hazards all make well water dangerous to consume. The greater challenge rests in convincing people that well water is, unlike the positive stereotype that pervades popular culture, a fluid that might require a daunting number of purification steps to render it safe. From arsenic to excessive amount of fluorine, to high levels of radon, well water can be more chemical stew than pristine nectar.

Arsenic concentrations in well water are a persistent problem. This nasty poison enters the aquifer through natural erosion: When underground water flows over rocks or soil that contain arsenic, the arsenic slowly dissolves into the water. It is, therefore, crucial that residents test well water throughout the year, as these levels can vary with each season.

In certain locations, wells contain excessive amounts of natural gas, which, if not vented properly, can cause considerable damage. Unfortunately, this situation is not at all uncommon in farm water wells throughout North America. Gas trapped anywhere in the plumbing, such as in a well pit or pump house, can build up to explosive levels, just waiting for a spark from a pump motor or pressure switch.

Sixty percent of wells that get their water from crystalline rock produce excessive quantities of radon, fluorine, sodium, and even uranium. Adding to the problem is the chemical fact that some metals such as copper and lead do not dissolve easily. Thus, a complex cleansing process must be adapted to the water in question.

As such, expensive equipment must be installed to purify the water, but even then, it is by no means guaranteed that the nature of the impurities will remain constant. The aquifer can be contaminated by landfills, underground storage tanks, local industry, livestock wastes, household wastes, and—lest we forget—septic tanks.

If all this isn’t bad enough, scientists have established a link between drinking well water and stomach ulcers (not to mention chronic gastritis and even some forms of stomach cancer). In 1998, a research team headed by Penn State Harrisburg Assistant Professor of Environmental Microbiology Katherine Baker found the causative bacterium—Helicobacter pylori—in river, creek, and lake water in Central Pennsylvania.

“Water looks to be a major factor in the transmission of the bacterium,” Baker noted, pointing out that the organism was found in both surface water and untreated well water from shallow wells, where surface water contamination is likely to occur.

Initially, Baker limited her study to surface water, but when she found out that a co-worker’s mother had just been diagnosed with a Helicobacter pylori infection, the study expanded. “Her drinking water came from an untreated shallow well and she had just recently started to drink lots of water to help her lose weight,” Baker said.

Sure enough, water examined from the well after a rain storm, when surface water contamination was likely, showed the presence of live Helicobacter pylori.

For those of us who drink properly chlorinated municipal water, we can be confident that this pathogen is killed by the treatment. And, in theory, properly chlorinated well water should be free of Helicobacter pylori, also. Still, all these purity issues seem like they would be a full-time job; and they are for employees of municipal water districts!

According to the US EPA, approximately 15 percent of Americans rely on their own private drinking water supplies. At the very least, these individuals must be extremely vigilant. One can only speculate as to the low-level health effects that might be occurring within this population.