Test your well water – for the health of your family

For most people residing in the Western Upper Peninsula, safe drinking water is as close as the nearest faucet. Municipalities have made providing safe drinking water to community members a top priority of local government. But residents of Western UP households with private drinking water wells must take special precautions to protect and maintain their family’s drinking water supply so that it is safe. Contaminated water can impact the health of the entire family.

The Western UP Health Department wants families to have the information they need about groundwater quality and water testing. According to Lynne Madison, environmental health division director for Western UP Health Department, “ Concern about the variability of groundwater quality in the Western UP is driving this groundwater education campaign. We know there are naturally occurring contaminants in UP groundwater that can be unhealthy if consumed by our residents. The health department’s website provides information that is easily accessible for private well owners”.

Although most groundwater wells produce water that is safe to drink, ensuring that is the case involves a combination of proper well construction, and water quality testing. In Michigan, water-well drillers are licensed and construct wells according to Michigan’s Water Well Construction Code. The health department works with property owners and well drillers to make sure the well is constructed and located properly. But what about existing wells? It is up to each homeowner to protect their wells from contaminates like oil, gas, pesticides, and fertilizers, and to test the water to be sure the well water is healthy to drink.

“Well water testing is easy and inexpensive. Water test kits are available from each of the health department’s offices. Well owners should test annually for bacteria and nitrates, and test at least once for fluoride and uranium”, advises Madison. The health department website (www.wuphd.org), has posted water testing advisories for uranium and fluoride.

Water quality in the Western Upper Peninsula can be compromised by several contaminants and the following are routine tests needed for every drinking water well:

BACTERIA TESTING – Testing for coliform bacteria and e. coli is required for all new wells and annual testing of existing wells is recommended. Finding coliform bacteria in a properly constructed well would be unusual and indicate a problem with the well. This is an especially important test if a change in water color or quantity occurs.

CHEMISTRY TESTING – A water sample can be tested for Iron, Sodium, Nitrates, Nitrites, Hardness, Sulfate, Chloride, and Fluoride. Wells in our area can have poor water quality with objectionable levels of chlorides, hardness, iron and sodium. These high concentrations impart a salty or bitter taste to the water and cause scaling, blackening, and pitting of plumbing fixtures. High sodium levels may be a health concern to a person on a sodium-restricted diet. Large amounts of nitrate in drinking water can cause serious illness in infants less than six months of age. Testing for nitrates is strongly advised before well water is used for infant formula.

FLUORIDE TESTING – Certain areas in Houghton and Keweenaw Counties, especially along the Lake Superior shoreline between McLain State Park and Five Mile Point, have produced high fluoride levels in private wells. It is strongly recommended that private wells in this area be tested for fluoride. While appropriate amounts of naturally occurring fluoride are tremendously beneficial to healthy tooth development, excessively high amount of fluoride may cause dental fluorosis, a white staining and/or pitting of the permanent teeth in young children. Long-term exposure to drinking water levels above 4.0 mg/L for many years may also cause skeletal fluorosis, a serious bone disorder. Some wells tested in Stanton, Hancock, Allouez, Portage, and Eagle Harbor Townships have had fluoride levels between 4.0 and 10.3 mg/L. Chemistry testing will provide a fluoride level as well as useful information about other water quality parameters such as iron, sodium, nitrates, nitrites, hardness, sulfate, and chloride levels.

URANIUM TESTING – Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive element found in small amounts throughout the environment. We all take it into our bodies from the air, water, food, and soil. In fact, in most areas of the United States, low levels of uranium are found in the drinking water. However, some drinking water sources in the Western Upper Peninsula have been found to contain uranium in amounts that exceed the federal Maximum Contaminant Level. Water supplies with radioactivity have been found in Baraga, Gogebic, Houghton, Keweenaw, and Ontonagon Counties. The health effects of uranium exposure in the amounts seen are associated with kidney damage with long-time use. There is also a very small possibility of an increased risk of cancer over a lifetime of exposure.

It’s important to know that naturally occurring contaminants like uranium can be removed from water, making it safe to drink. Treatment devices for uranium removal, such as Reverse Osmosis units, are relatively inexpensive (about $300) and easy to install under a kitchen sink. In most cases, wells testing positive for coliform bacteria can be repaired to ensure the water is safe to drink.

For more information about well water please contact the health department’s environmental health sanitarians at the 482-7382.