Officials: Test wells for pollutants

ADDISON COUNTY — If you’re like many Vermonters, you have a well drilled hundreds of feet into the depths of your yard. This well probably supplies water for drinking, washing, bathing and cooking to your family — and if you’re like many Vermonters, the odds say that water’s never been tested.
While town water is tested regularly according to guidelines put forth by the Environmental Protection Agency, well owners must remember to test water on their own. Peter Conlon, a Cornwall resident, says he hasn’t tested his water for anything aside from hardness since he first bought his property 15 years ago.
“To be honest, I don’t know if I’m supposed to be testing for anything else,” he said. “I’m going to guess that I’m probably like most people.”
Conlon guessed correctly — according to the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), 40 percent of the water that trickles through Vermont’s residential pipes and faucets comes from private wells, but only 5 percent of those wells have been tested.
In Addison County, only seven out of 23 towns offer public water to residents, leaving 16 towns without regulated, tested water.
Officials at Vermont’s Department of Health (DOH) have been scratching their heads, trying to deduce the cause of this lack of testing. In October, the Center of Disease Control and Prevention awarded the DOH $670,010 to learn why homeowners aren’t testing their water supplies and to improve the department’s outreach — and hopefully the dismal testing statistics.
“We’re trying to figure out, why don’t people test their wells?” said Sarah Vose, state toxicologist for the DOH. “Do they not know what our recommendations are? Do they think it’s too expensive? Is it too far to drive the sample?”
After all, tainted water can cause a wide range of health problems, depending on the contaminant. High levels of arsenic and uranium in well water increase risk of cancer. High levels of copper can cause stomachaches, vomiting and diarrhea. Lead, perhaps one of the most dangerous contaminants, can damage the brain, kidneys and nervous system.
Still other compounds, like manganese and iron, can cause stains in laundry or appliances. Water hardness does not pose a risk to health, but soap doesn’t lather as well in the presence of hard water, and it can cause buildup in water heaters, cookware and plumbing.
According to Vose, those contaminants can’t be smelled, tasted or seen, meaning many Vermonters believe their water is perfectly healthy. Conlon is a perfect example.
 “We’ve been drinking it for 15 years and we’re not dead yet,” he said.
According to Vose, the only way to know what’s in your water is to test it. The DOH recommends testing water for things like E.coli, under the larger category of “total coliform bacteria,” once every year. Residents should test for inorganic chemicals – salt, lead, arsenic and others – once every five years. Also every five years, well owners should have their water screened for radioactive minerals like uranium and radium.
The DOH provides tests for private well water at $14 for total coliform bacteria, $100 for a comprehensive inorganic chemical test, and $45 for the recommended testing of radioactive minerals, called the Gross Alpha Screen.
Homeowners can hire private companies to perform the testing, but DOH prices are lower, according to Vose.
The issue of water quality in private wells arose earlier this spring, when 135 private wells in North Bennington and Pownal were found to be contaminated with PFOA — an industrial chemical and possible carcinogen used to make products like nonstick cookware and fire-fighting foam.
So far, officials are not concerned about any PFOA contamination in Addison County, but the incident is a reminder to all residential well owners that routine testing of private water is often overlooked, and vital for the health and safety of consumers.
While PFOA is an industrial, man-made chemical that leaked from several pinpointed areas, most well water contaminants come from the earth’s crust.
Vose said a property owner’s susceptibility to contamination varies according to the rock and soil into which the well is drilled. Some rock formations are more likely to have arsenic, and some are more likely to have uranium, for example.
“The best thing people can do for themselves is to test,” she said.
Additional information about testing private wells and about the PFOA contamination is available on the Department of Health website. Any questions about private well test results can be directed to the DOH’s Public Health Laboratory Customer Service at (802) 338-4724.

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