BLACKSBURG — Flint, Michigan, is hardly the only place Virginia Tech researchers are looking for contaminants in drinking water.
In Virginia, one team that’s part of Virginia Tech’s Cooperative Extension has tested private well samples serving 16,000 people across the state since 2008.
Researchers discovered health-based contaminants above federal standards for municipal systems in almost 60 percent of the well samples — including Flint-like elevated lead levels in almost 20 percent of homes and coliform bacteria in about 40 percent of homes.
“You have failing systems all around you,” said Leigh Anne Krometis, a biological systems engineering assistant professor who has analyzed samples with the program.
The Virginia Household Water Quality Program — a service of Tech’s cooperative extension program — is working to prevent those failing well systems from harming people across the commonwealth.
“These guys are doing a great service,” said Marc Edwards, the leader of Tech’s Flint Water Study group and, in part because of the Flint situation, now a nationally renowned expert on water safety.
According to a 2010 U.S. Geological Survey report, about 1.7 million Virginians rely on private wells — systems that draw water from the ground and aren’t connected to municipal water infrastructure. And because they’re privately owned, there is little to no regulation and they are often misunderstood, said Erin Ling, senior extension associate and program coordinator.
Many Virginia wells supply rural homes, but there are also many wells that are used in subdivisions on the outskirts of towns and cities, Ling said.
The water quality program offers to test people’s private wells for a reduced rate of $52. Agents and volunteers within the program’s network will then help people navigate the results in an information session, Ling said.
“If we can empower people with accurate information we can help them make informed decisions,” she said.
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More than 20 years ago, when Karen Iannaconne and her husband moved to their home in the Price’s Fork community near Blacksburg, the source of their water was the last thing on her mind, she said.
The couple’s groundwater well was out of sight and easy to forget about.
“Our well was literally buried under the surface of the ground,” Iannaconne said.
A buried well — which is common among older wells — isn’t a safe one, said Krometis. Because their caps are below the surface it’s easier for harmful things like wildlife or livestock waste to seep into them, she said.
That waste might cause bacteria like E. coli or parasitic giardia to become present in the water. But even if harmful diseases don’t automatically present themselves, it’s still unlikely people want to ingest such water, she said.
“Nobody wants to drink fecal material,” Krometis said.
Iannaconne said she was fortunate because she was able to get into the water quality program about eight years ago after reading about it on Virginia Tech’s website. Because of the program, she had testing done on her water, which she’s continued to do annually. Luckily for her, nothing harmful has been found, she said.
However, based on the condition of her well it’s likely she could’ve been in harm’s way, she said experts told her at the time.
Now, she has proper sanitary caps on two wells located on her property.
In Virginia, there is little regulation for private well owners. Wells built before 1992 had no regulations when they were bored or drilled, because there was no policy from the Virginia Department of Health.
There are installation regulations for wells that local drillers need to know in order to obtain a license, said Gary Coggins, New River Health District environmental health manager. However, there are no regulations for wells after that point. State and federal water safety agencies don’t regulate private wells.
Coggins said that when a new well is drilled the health department will come and inspect it to make sure proper protocols are performed. The health department will also investigate any instances where a communicable disease is reported.
However, Coggins said, the health department doesn’t do routine inspections of private wells because it’s ultimately up to the well owner to maintain them.
“They’re private, so it’s the private owner’s responsibility to have them checked,” Coggins said. “We’re a big proponent that it’s absolutely important to get your well checked.”
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One way the program is empowering people is through research on private wells done by members of the team that found lead in Flint’s water.
Kelsey Pieper, a researcher on the Flint team who recently got her doctorate from Tech, was the primary author on a study published last fall that found that 19 percent of homes in Virginia had water with amounts of lead above the Environmental Protection Agency standard. The study determined that much of the lead in private water systems is due to similar problems that occurred in Flint: corrosive water.
Corrosion — common in some parts of Virginia — happens with water in pipes that contain lead or brass, and that causes leaching.
According to Pieper, one of the places that has the worst such problem in Virginia is Albemarle County, where about a third of homes had particulate lead in their water supply. In the Roanoke and New River valleys, corrosive water is less common in some areas, but can be present in others simply based on what’s present in the soil or the depth of a well. Shallow wells are more likely to have rain water seep in and bring acid with it.
“Really the safest thing you can do is just test it,” Ling said.
Pieper’s study, was one of a handful conducted nationwide on lead risks in private wells. Its authors, who included Edwards, wrote that as the country continues to look at water safety for its citizens, private wells can’t be ignored.
“… Without including a focus on private as well as municipal systems it will be very difficult to meet the existing national public health goal to eliminate elevated blood lead levels in children,” Pieper and her co-authors wrote.
Those elevated blood lead levels can be catastrophic for developing children, said Casey Self, a pediatrician for Carilion based in Rocky Mount.
Self said the tricky thing about lead is detection in children younger than 5 years old. Children might be lead poisoned but show no obvious symptoms. Lead can cause a wide range of issues such as anxiety or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or even anemia or kidney failure. It can also be difficult to detect because many of those problems can be caused by other factors.
That’s why doctors test for lead in children’s blood at 1 and 2 years old, Self said. Identifying lead in the water could be another signal for young children who might have lead poisoning.
In Self’s experience, she said lead is rare in local drinking supplies for people on wells. However, because lead will enter from old pipes or other outside contaminants in older systems it’s important for people to be diligent about testing their water.
Self, who has been practicing medicine for more than a decade, said that health problems with well water are more likely to come from coliform bacteria or parasites most commonly associated with animal waste getting into water supplies.
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People who rely on wells for their drinking water should have it checked annually, Ling said.
The household water quality program offers a kickoff meeting, followed by a sampling collection on the same day that will allow people to drop off their samples in their locality.
There will then be a followup meeting on a later date where extension analysts will help homeowners figure out what the results mean and what steps should be taken to ensure their safety, Ling said.
The $52 to process a kit is lower than rates from a private firm, Ling said.
And because water source problems can impact property values, Ling said, the results of the tests are confidential.
The sessions proved helpful, Iannaconne said. Now she regularly gets her water checked by private companies for harmful foreign substances in her water. She’s also used the opportunity to talk to her neighbors to make them aware of the importance of checking out wells.
It was an educational process that Iannaconne is grateful for.
“I was shocked at how much I didn’t know,” she said.
“Now I know I have clean water.”
For more information about the Virginia Household Water Quality Program or to sign up for the program visit www.wellwater.bse.vt.edu.