Why it's still important to check your private well water safety

Close to one-third of North Carolinians rely on private well water. RTI International scientist Jennifer Redmon explains the importance of testing private wells.

Why it's still important to check your private well water safety
March 7, 2018

North Carolina relies on private wells more than most states

North Carolina has more residents relying on private well water than any other state in the country besides Pennsylvania. It’s difficult to know exactly how many people drink from private wells, but the US Geological Survey estimates that it’s roughly one-third (3.3 million) of the population.

The trouble with well water is that the responsibility for ensuring its safety falls on the well owner.

“When people buy a home, they’re not necessarily thinking about having to be an expert on water quality,” said Dr. Jennifer Redmon, environmental health scientist at RTI International. “And there’s a perception that if my water looks fine, tastes fine and smells fine, then there’s no danger.”

Municipal water treatment plants are covered under the U.S. Safe Water Drinking Act. That means the water coming from the treatment plant is tested for more than 90 different contaminants.

But private wells don’t get the same surveillance as public water. Research from UNC-Chapel Hill found that 99 percent of visits to the emergency department for gastrointestinal illnesses due to bacteria contamination happened because the patients were drinking well water. 

How do wells become contaminated?

Wells rely on ground water (rain or snow melt that seeps through sediment to form an underground aquifer). Ground water can become contaminated by bacteria from nearby septic tanks, runoff from nearby farms or runoff from sites like landfills, gas stations and laundromats. Most wells don’t have sophisticated built-in filters.

That’s why Redmon says it’s essential that private homeowners test their water periodically.  

Lead Contamination a Concern

Researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill and RTI International are also concerned about lead contamination. Lead contamination can lead to serious health issues, including brain and nervous system damage. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no “safe” level of lead in drinking water.

Lead was used to join pipes together in homes before 1985, when North Carolina banned its use. But according to Dr. Redmon, even “lead-free” pipes in homes built after 1985 are allowed to have a small percentage of lead in them.

“There’s a question about how much lead makes a difference,” said Redmon. “But regardless of whether or not these low levels are causing health issues, why not reduce or eliminate if you can?”

If your home is connected to a municipal water treatment plant, then that plant will test for lead. But by the time water makes it through the distribution pipeline to your tap, it could have encountered lead, especially in older homes.

Study on Lead in Wake County Private Wells

Private well owners have even less support for making sure their water is lead-free. That’s why Redmon and her team are testing 300 homes in Wake County for lead levels. They’re also taking blood samples from children living in the home to test the amount of lead exposure among children.

If they do find lead levels to be high, they’ll provide homeowners with educational materials on ensuring high water quality, including simple filtration systems.

Empowering private well owners

Besides regular testing, Redmon and her team advocate for simple ways to ensure well water is safe, including running the faucet for several minutes before drinking from it. That way the water that’s been sitting in pipes for more than 6 hours will drain.

“We’re trying to empower private well owners to actively monitor and maintain their own water quality,” said Redmon.

To enroll in the study, call the study hotline at 919-843-5786 or email cleanwater@rti.org. To be eligible, you must use a private well and have a child age seven or younger. Participant results are private and participants will receive a $75 gift card.

Find information on how to test your well water on North Carolina's Health and Human Services page. 


—Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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