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Well Water: The Hidden Problem - A Pure Water Alternative in Rural and Suburban America

Well Water: The Hidden Problem
A Pure Water Alternative in Rural and Suburban America

December 31, 2005


The traditional rural population within the United States has changed significantly with the emergence of urban centers in the past 50 years. Although this development has provided for other sources of water, there are many areas in the country that still rely on wells and ground water for drinking. Recent EPA estimates assert that over 15% of the population still uses well water for drinking, washing, crop support and other general purposes; close to 45 million Americans depend on well water for their basic necessities in life.

Well water is continually under the threat of contamination from a number of sources however, and the burden of testing the ground water is placed upon individual landowners rather than governmental agencies. As a result, pure drinking water is depleting in rural and suburban America because testing by the individual landowner is not required. This, in turn, will eventually become a considerable problem.

The Problem:

Unlike municipal and bottled water sources, drinking water from wells is not regulated by any governmental bodies including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Because each well is its own source of water, effective regulation of millions of wells clearly proves beyond the scope and power of governmental regulatory authorities.

In addition, well water is subject to contamination from a number of sources. The risk of significant health problems depends on a number of factors including:

• How the well was constructed
• The location of the well on the property
• Local environmental factors
• The condition of the aquifer that supplies the well
• Human, animal and industrial activities in proximity to the well

What Exactly is Well Water?

Well water or ground water is formed as a result of rain and snow seeping into the ground and filling the space between rocks and soil in what is known as an “aquifer.” The bulk of the nation’s drinking water comes from ground water aquifers although the portion that sources municipal water supplies as tap water is subject to quality standards.

Clean drinking water is necessary for a healthy life and contamination of ground water poses a substantial threat to health in rural and suburban America. The actual well drillers and installers are subject to state regulations but the quality of the water output is not regulated and remains the responsibility of the well owner. Well water significantly varies in quality from place to place throughout the country. Depth of the water table and the quality and quantity of replenishment sources are also considerations.

The burden of maintaining safe drinking water from wells is directly placed on the homeowner; the testing is at best a cumbersome process. Simple tests are not adequate to identify all contamination sources and expensive laboratory testing is often required. Repeated testing is also required to ensure that varying conditions do not introduce new contaminants.

Rural and Suburban:

Well water contamination is not limited to rural farms. As population pressure is intensified in urban area suburbs, housing developments are increasingly required to use well water to meet their water needs. This is because individual homes are being built faster than municipal water utilities can expand and homeowners are forced to use existing wells. The percentage of the population relying on ground water through wells can be expected to drastically increase.

Sources of Well Water Contaminants:

Well water contamination generally comes from three sources:

• Natural impurities or contaminants:

As water moves through the ground it picks up elements that occur naturally like magnesium, calcium, chlorides and often more dangerous dissolved elements like arsenic, boron, selenium and radon. This is particularly problematic during times of flooding.

• Pollution from human activities:

o Improper use of fertilizers, animal manure, pesticides and herbicides
o Landfills and waste dumps
o Heavy metals from mining and construction activities
o Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s)
o Faulty septic systems located near the well head
o Underground storage tanks
o Improper discharge from storm drains
o Chemical spills and improper waste disposal

• Pressure from suburban growth that exceeds municipal water capacity and reliance on well water without safety standards.

The list of possible contaminants and sources of contaminants is large and on the rise, which puts well water at an increasingly high risk. EPA sources estimate that contamination can be found in all 50 states and the incidences of contamination are increasing as the suburbs grow and overpopulation encroaches on rural wells.

Types of Human Contaminants:

Natural impurities and contaminants, which, in general, are widely known and still pose a dangerous hazard to drinking water, are not as critical as contamination from human activity.

There is pressure on the nation’s water supply as more people move to urban areas and industry and business continue to contaminate ground water. The sources of pollutants, as listed below, are understood but not regulated by local, state or federal government agencies:

• Bacteria and nitrates- These contaminants are often found in human wastes that contaminate due to poor location of septic tanks, local landfills and garbage dumps near wells that produce drinking water. Children, adults with damaged autoimmune systems, cancer patients and the elderly are at risk.

• Animal waste and manure – Pathogens from animal wastes in feeding operations and large farms have a particularly negative effect on ground water.

• Chemicals used to promote growth of crops and control insect damage- Fertilizers and pesticides used on farms, golf courses and suburban lawns and gardens have a long lasting negative impact on ground water.

• Industrial products and wastes – Chemicals used in industrial and business processes are increasingly becoming major pollutants for nearby wells. This problem extends to old and leaking storage tanks on farmland converted to suburban housing developments still using wells for drinking water.

• Household wastes – In addition to faulty septic tanks, household wastes from detergents, cleaning solvents, motor oil, paints and thinners all negatively affect the ground water supply of drinking water.

Flooding and Well Water:

While not pervasive in all parts of the country, flooding occurs regularly and affects large areas and parts of the population. The impact of flooding from rivers and hurricanes can cause extensive and long term negative effects on the drinking water from wells.

Because of the extensive flood areas and the speed and direction of ground water flow, water wells are often adversely affected for many months after the initial flood. Wells can become contaminated with bacteria or other pollutants. In addition, waste water from malfunctioning septic tanks or chemicals seeping into the ground can contaminate the ground water even after the water was tested and found to be safe. Long range precautions are necessary, including repeated testing, to protect the safety of drinking well water after floods.

Well Water and MTBE:

MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) is an additive to gasoline and fuel oil that replaces lead for better performance. It is easily absorbed in ground spills and enters ground water through leaks in faulty underground storage tanks. MTBE moves quickly through the soil and dissolves easily into water; MTBE is not a localized phenomenon. Ground water in 24 states has been found to contain high concentrations of MBTE.

MTBE contamination is serious and dangerous. Even a minor spill of gasoline containing small amounts of MTBE can contaminate significant ground water and drinking water wells.

A number of states have banned the use of MTBE and other states are reviewing the problem. Significant contamination has occurred however to the point that, even if MTBE was completely banned, it would take several years to free the ground water environment from the effects of the chemical.

Conditions and Tests:

The list of contaminants that require testing is extensive and burdensome. Any one of a number of conditions can negatively affect the purity of the drinking water from wells. Furthermore testing does not stop with the initial test and periodic tests must be performed.

Conditions or Nearby Activities:

Recurring gastro-intestinal illness
Household plumbing contains lead
Radon in indoor air or region is radon rich
Corrosion of pipes, plumbing
Nearby areas of intensive agriculture
Coal or other mining operations nearby
Gas drilling operations nearby
Dump, junkyard, landfill, factory, gas station, or dry-cleaning nearby
Odor of gasoline or fuel oil, and near gas station or buried fuel tanks
Objectionable taste or smell
Stained plumbing fixtures, laundry
Salty taste and seawater, or a heavily salted roadway nearby
Scaly residues, soaps don’t lather
Rapid wear of water treatment equipment
Water softener needed to treat hardness
Water appears cloudy, frothy, or colored

Test For:

Coliform bacteria
pH, lead, copper
Corrosion, pH, lead
Nitrate, pesticides, coliform bacteria
Metals, pH, corrosion
Chloride, sodium, barium, strontium
Volatile organic compounds, total dissolved solids, pH, sulfate, chloride, metals
Volatile organic compounds
Hydrogen sulfide, corrosion, metals
Iron, copper, manganese
Chloride, total dissolved solids, sodium
pH, corrosion
Manganese, iron
Color, detergents

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

The Bottled Water Alternative:

Where the purity of drinking well water is in question, bottled water is the best alternative to ensure good health. But not all bottled waters are the same quality. There are many types of bottled water on the market.

Spring water is subject to the same ground water contamination as well water and contains inorganic compounds that may be harmful to health. Filtered water does not remove heavy metals, nitrates or bacteria unless combined with other processes. Purified water using either Ion exchange or reverse osmosis procedures is unable to effectively remove inorganic compounds and bacteria.

By far the most effective process for producing ultra pure bottled water combines distillation and carbon filtration processes that purifies the water and removes over 99% of inorganic compounds. The distillation and carbon filtration combination produces a high quality, ultra pure water.

Bottled water is also subject to Food and Drug Administration quality standards that are administered through individual state inspection agencies.

The Future of Well Water:

Contamination of well water will increase as development pressure on rural and suburban land continues. This is particularly true on the East Coast of the United States as rural areas, already under pressure, are consumed by increased concentration of more individuals entering the urban environment.

Contamination of well water will increase as development pressures on rural and suburban land continues. This is particularly true on the East Coast of the United States as rural areas, already under pressure, are consumed by increased concentration of more individuals entering the urban environment.

Testing of well water is complex and expensive and generally beyond the scope and awareness of those relying on well water for their drinking water and personal use. Contamination and health problems can be expected to increase considerably and residents should consider bottled pure water as a reliable source of drinking water.

About the Author: Jon Stout is the Chairman of the board for Element H2O, a bottler in Chantilly, Virginia offering only Ultra Pure bottled water products and private label opportunities for small and large businesses in all 50 states and Canada.

Elements H2O’s clients include businesses in the health and fitness and hospitality industries, fitness centers, gyms, large and small hotels, day spas, catering companies, and many others.

You can reach Jon Stout at 1-866-4-PURITY, or by email at

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