Germs and chemicals can get into your well water and contaminate it in different ways. Some germs and chemicals occur naturally. For example, heavy metals like arsenic, lead and cadmium are naturally found in rocks and soil and sometimes seep into ground water. Other contaminants come from human and animal wastes resulting from polluted storm runoff, agricultural runoff, flooded sewers, or individual septic systems that are not working properly.
Several things you should test for are listed below. These germs and chemicals can be a risk to your health. Remember, NETPHD only performs bacteriological tests on water samples.
- Total coliform
Coliform bacteria are microbes found in the digestive systems of warm-blooded animals, in soil, on plants, and in surface water. The microbes typically do not make you sick; however, because microbes that do cause disease are hard to test for in water, “total coliforms” are tested instead. If total coliform organism is found, then it is very possible that harmful germs like viruses, bacteria and parasites might also be found in the water.
- Fecal coliform / Escherichia coli (E. coli)
Fecal coliform bacteria are a 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. It is important not to confuse the test for the common and usually harmless E. coli with a test for the more dangerous E. coli O157:H7.
Nitrate is naturally found in many types of food. However, high levels of nitrate in drinking water can make people sick. Nitrate in your well water can come from animal waste, private septic systems, wastewater, flooded sewers, polluted storm water runoff, fertilizers, agricultural runoff, and decaying plants. The presence of nitrate in well water also depends on the geology of the land around your well. A nitrate test is recommended for all wells. If the nitrate level in your water is higher than EPA standards, you should look for other sources of water or ways to treat your water.
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
VOCs are industrial and fuel-related chemicals that may cause bad health effects at certain levels. Which VOCs to test for depends on where you live. Contact your local health or environmental department, or the EPA to find out if any VOCs are a problem in your region. Some VOCs to ask about testing for are benzene, carbon tetrachloride, toluene, trichloroethelene, and methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).
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 the pH of your water is too low or too high, it could damage pipes, cause heavy metals like lead to leak out of pipes into the water, and eventually make you sick.
Other germs or harmful chemicals that you should test for will depend on where your well is located on your property, which state you live in, and whether you live in an urban or rural area.
Several sources of pollution are easy to spot by sight, taste, or smell. The following is a quick reference list of noticeable problems:
- Scale or scum from calcium or magnesium salts in water
- Unclear/turbid water from dirt, clay salts, silt or rust in water
- Green stains on sinks or faucets caused by high acidity
- Brown-red stains on sinks, dishwashers, or clothes in wash points dissolved iron in water
- Cloudy water that clears upon standing may have air bubbles from poorly working pump or problems with filters
- Salty or brackish taste from high sodium content in water
- Alkali/soapy taste from dissolved alkaline minerals in water
- Metallic taste from acidity or high iron content in water
- Chemical taste from industrial chemicals or pesticides
- A rotten egg odor can be from dissolved hydrogen sulfide gas or certain bacteria in your water. If the smell only comes with hot water, it is likely from a part in your hot water heater.
- An earthy, fishy or moldy smell can be from geosmin. Geosmin is produced by several classes of microbes, including blue-green algae, and is released when these microbes die. Communities whose water supply depends on surface water can periodically experience episodes of unpleasant smelling or tasting water when a sharp drop in the population of these bacteria release geosmin into the local water supply. Generally, it is noticed in warm water more, such as in the shower.
- A detergent odor and water that foams when drawn could be seepage from septic tanks into your ground water well.
- A gasoline or oil smell indicates fuel oil or gasoline likely seeping from a tank into the water supply.
- Methane gas or musty/earthy smell from decaying organic matter in water.
- Chlorine smell from excessive chlorination.
Note: This information is taken and adapted from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).