Experts are calling for those with private water supplies like wells or springs to regularly test their water in the face of data showing that up to 40 percent of all water wells in the state fail to meet at least one drinking water standard.
"Just because the water looks okay, tastes okay and smells okay does not mean that it's safe to drink," said Bryan Swistock, a Penn State Extension water specialist. "We recommend people test their water annually."
"The most frequently detected pollutant with a potential health effect is coliform bacteria, which occurred in about one third of the water wells tested in our research. The presence of these bacteria indicates the potential for disease-causing bacteria to occur in drinking water. E. coli bacteria — which originate from either animal or human wastes and thus represent a more serious health risk — were found in 14 percent of the water wells in our recent study."
On Tuesday, Swistock testified before the state legislature's House Consumer Affairs Committee in a hearing on House Bill 1855, which would create standards for water-well construction.
"While proper well construction does not completely eliminate water-quality problems, it clearly plays a role in preventing surface contaminants from getting into wells," he said. "Our research has shown that inadequate water-well construction is a contributing factor to the failure of some private wells to meet safe-drinking-water standards."
More than 3 million Pennsylvanians rely on wells or springs for their water supply, according to state Department of Environmental Protection figures. That number puts Pennsylvania second only to Michigan in the number of people served through those sources.
Pennsylvania is currently one of just a few states that do not have statewide requirements for the construction of private water wells and also does not require residents to regularly test their private water source, Swistock said.
"We have found that about one-third of water-well owners have never had their water tested properly by a state-accredited laboratory, and many who have done testing don't understand the meaning of the results."
Yearly testing is relatively inexpensive, with most homeowners finding that sending and analyzing samples through a DEP-accredited lab costs around $100, Swistock said.
The basic test looks for biological contaminants like the coliform bacteria group.
Every three years, the homeowner should order a more comprehensive test that looks for chemical contaminants and measures the TDS or total dissolved solids in the water.
Testing should also be undertaken by property owners seeing construction or other land-use changes like drilling for Marcellus Shale gas wells.
That testing is a specialized chain-of-custody procedure designed to be legally admissible as evidence in court should the gas well or other construction adversely affect the water supply.
"In the case of Marcellus Shale we're seeing an increase in testing that is often paid for by the company as part of the permitting process," Swistock said. "However, any time there's a change in use, property owners should consider it."
Beyond testing, property owners should make certain they have properly-constructed wells, Swistock said.
While finding bacteria can be related to various land uses near water wells, they also can occur from surface water, insects or small mammals entering poorly constructed wells.
The surface contamination often can be prevented by extending a properly sized well casing above the ground surface, installing a cement-like grout seal around the casing and fitting the top of the casing with a vermin-proof or sanitary well cap, he said.
"Bacterial contamination rates in water wells with sanitary construction were about half of the rates found in water wells that lacked any sanitary construction components."
Swistock estimated that the university has conducted testing on several thousand water wells during the course of various research studies.
"We've consistently run into the 40 percent figure. It's been that way for decades," he said.
Inadequate water well construction and the lack of awareness of water-quality problems by well owners represent significant potential health risks among the millions of rural residents, farmers and businesses that access the shared groundwater resource, Swistock said.
For more information visit http://extension.psu.edu/water/drinking-water online.
Expert: 40 percent of all private water supplies fail safety standards
An microscopic image of E. coli bacteria (Image courtesy of Google)