By Catherine Clabby

The EPA requires public water systems to monitor their drinking supplies frequently and limit the amounts of the contaminants that the federal government regulates. But people who own their wells shoulder all that responsibility themselves, whether or not they know it.

Now government and academic public health experts, including Crystal Lee Pow Jackson from the Department of Health and Human Services, are taking new steps to help them.

Jackson, an environmental toxicologist, faces big obstacles in her quest to map the locations of a plentitude of private drinking wells spread across North Carolina.

One third of the state’s residents, some 3.3 million people, are believed to draw drinking water from wells, a tally second only to Pennsylvania nationwide. But North Carolina didn’t require testing water from newly dug private wells until 2008.

Records of the now-required screens don’t always include an address, a data point vital to Jackson’s map building. And the many owners of older wells who never had their water tested have no paper trail for her to follow either.

Still, any filling in of blanks could help state and county public health experts like her improve their understanding of where wells are and what contamination risks lurk nearby.

“We can at least identify areas where more people are likely to have wells rather than public drinking water,” said Jackson, whose well mapping and education project within the state Division of Public Health is funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Time for change

portrait of a smiling Gibson
Jackie MacDonald Gibson. Photo credit: Catherine Clabby

Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, a UNC-Chapel Hill researcher, co-authored a research paper published this month promoting specific steps needed to promote better testing and treatment of well water in North Carolina. The steps were developed at a 2015 Environmental Health Collaborative summit attended by a mix of drinking water supply and public health experts.

“There needs to be more support for private well owners. It’s very difficult to be your own water utility on top of everything else you have to do,” said Gibson, an associate professor at Gillings School of Global Public Health who studies the roots and implications of disparities in access to safe drinking water.

While there is no evidence that the vast majority of private wells in this state are tainted, there is plenty of evidence that some are at risk, from natural and humanmade contaminants.

And it isn’t always easy to predict where they are.

Using very limited data available — private well tests from the North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health from 1998-2010 — the UNC Superfund Research Program has mapped detected levels of the 30 contaminants above county by county. You can browse by county or by contaminant.

The UNC Superfund Program and collaborators have listed 30 contaminants detected between 1998 and 2010 in North Carolina well water tested across the state. Some of the contaminants, such as arsenic, lead and the industrial chemical benzene have been found at levels exceeding the maximum levels that EPA tolerates in municipal water supplies.

Gibson has detected microbial risks here too. Using 2007-2013 data from North Carolina emergency departments, she concluded in research published last year that 99 percent of 29,400 emergency department visits over a seven year period for acute gastrointestinal illness – vomiting, diarrhea and the like – linked to drinking water were associated with contamination in private wells, not public water supplies.

Creating a database including the location of private wells is a top priority that Gibson and a co-author are promoting. So is an update and upgrade to existing websites to assist homeowners in selecting which contaminants to monitor, collecting samples, finding state-accredited water testing labs, interpreting test results, and selecting any needed water treatment technologies, something Jackson is also tackling for DHHS.

Investigating ways to provide well-testing and water-treatment subsidies, also on the summit to-do list, is an “urgent” need, said Katie Hicks, associate director of Clean Water for North Carolina, a nonprofit advocacy group that has long promoted more government attention to water quality in private wells.

shows distribution of lead in well water in NC
Map courtesy: UNC Superfund Research Program – Research Translation Core

“The current resources in places to assist well owners, especially financially, are inadequate,” Hicks said.

Costs for testing can add up. A bacteria screen can be as little as $25, but a full panel, including pricey tests for radium, can add up to more than $600. Some counties subsidize tests for residents with low incomes but not all.

The occupational and environmental branch of the state Division of Public Health recommends that well owners test their water annually for coliform bacteria, one step to detecting animal or human waste contamination. The division recommends testing every two years for heavy metals, nitrates, lead, copper, and volatile organic compounds and every five years for pesticides.

More frequent testing would be recommended when a woman using well water becomes pregnant, to test for high nitrates which could harm a developing fetus, or after flooding, industrial spills or other environmental hazards.

In a 2014 report requested by the General Assembly, DHHS legislative counsel Adam Sholar, working for former Secretary Aldona Wos, recommended against reducing or waiving state laboratory fees for tests on behalf of families with incomes at or below 300 percent of federal poverty level, saying that would require the state to commit more money to the laboratory.

Inequities still in play

Racial disparities are in play in this environmental issue, Gibson said. Unequal access to safer public drinking water supplies has left some African-American residents living very close to municipalities, sometimes surrounded by a land that is part of a city or town, but unlinked to nearby public water pipes.

map of Wake County African American census tracts lacking community water service.
Wake County African American census tracts lacking community water service. Map courtesy The Water Institute, UNC-Chapel Hill

Gibson’s studies of such neighborhoods in rural Wake County, called “under-bounded” communities by demographers and public health researchers, contribute to evidence that being unlinked can introduce health risks.

In a study she and a collaborator published in 2015 in the American Journal of Public Health, she found residents in these neighborhoods are more likely to be exposed to unwanted microbes.

About 30 percent of 171 private well water samples her research team gathered tested positive for coliform bacteria, which can cause diarrhea and vomiting; more than 6 percent tested positive for E. coli. Results for both contaminants were only a fraction of a percent in samples taken from the nearby public water.

The summit recommendation Gibson has published also calls for studies to identify these under-bounded neighborhoods, estimate how much it would cost to connect these homes to public water, and make extending water and sewer lines their way a priority.

“Providing clean water and sanitation is the foundation of public health,” Gibson said. “That is where we should begin.”

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Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...