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What should I test for and how often?
As a homeowner, you can have your water tested for a wide range of substances, however, these tests can be very expensive, and in most cases, are not necessary. It is important to identify which substances you should test for if it cannot be detected using the more common water test kits. To safeguard against the most common and serious health concerns, environmental health professionals suggest that at a minimum you test your water well for coliform bacteria, nitrates and pH annually.
Bacteriological Analysis detects different types of coliform bacteria in your well water. Aside from the annual test, this should be done whenever (1) there is a noticeable change in the odor, color or taste of your well water, (2) flooding has occurred near your well, (3) a household member or animal experiences unexplained gastro-intestinal illnesses, or (4) maintenance has been carried out on the water supply.
- Partial Chemical Analysis detects some commonly occurring inorganic compounds such as nitrates, iron, sodium and chlorine. Testing for nitrates should be carried out especially if (1) livestock facilities, fertilizer storage or handling sites, septic system or other nitrogen sources are in the area of the water supply, (2) manure or municipal sludge is spread in the area of the water supply or on land nearby, or (3) fertilizer is applied on or near the water supply. Because high levels of nitrates can cause methemoglobinemia ("blue baby syndrome"), you should test your well more often if someone in your household is pregnant or lactating or if there is an infant. When ingested, nitrates are transformed into nitrites. Nitrites convert hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of blood, into methemoglobin, a more inefficient oxygen carrier. Left untreated, methemoglobinemia can lead to brain damage or even death. Young infants are the most vulnerable.
- pH Test: Water with a pH of less than 6.5 or greater than 8.0 can corrode your plumbing and introduce dissolved metals into your drinking water. These metals may pose a serious health hazard.
Because nitrates enter groundwater through the same pathways as other contaminants, the detection of nitrates in your drinking water may indicate the presence of pesticides and other substances in your aquifer. If nitrates are detected, further tests are recommended to identify the contaminants that might be present. A specific chemical analysis detects one of a few specific chemicals. To determine which chemicals to test for, consult your local environmental health sanitarian or your county extension agent and consider present and past land-uses on and around your water supply area. Even if you find that your drinking water is safe, testing your water annually is a good way to establish a water quality record.
What do the test results mean?
Test results are given in terms of concentration (milligrams per liter). For contaminants that pose a health risk, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL). Prolonged exposure to substances exceeding their MCL may cause adverse health effects. The EPA has also set Secondary Maximum Contaminant Levels (SMCL) for substances that do not pose a health risk but that can affect the smell, taste, turbidity and color of your water. Your local health department can help you in interpreting the results of your water test. Below is a brief explanation of what the test results mean for the tests described above.
Bacteriological analysis: Counts of one or higher suggest that your well water is contaminated with either human or animal wastes and follow-up with your local sanitarian is warranted.
Partial Chemical Analysis: Results of a partial chemical analysis are reported in total milligrams detected per liter. The values given can be directly compared with the EPA established MCL's or SMCL's. Listed below are some commonly detected substances and their related problems.
|MCL or SMCL
||Health hazard especially for infants under one year of age.
||Mottling of teeth at high levels.
||Can cause corrosion in pipes and taste change. Can pose a health hazard to persons on salt restricted diets.
||Can cause staining, turbidity, taste, color and odor changes.
||less than 25 gpm or greater than 250 gpm
||Scaling of water fixtures, laundry problems, water spotting, and discoloration at high levels. Corrosion at low levels.
If you and your sanitarian decide that further testing is necessary, a number of private consultants and laboratories can assist you in testing for specific substances.
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