May 24, 2018

Working With Well Owners

How water quality professionals can help well owners manage elevated arsenic levels

Water treatment professionals treating well water

The occurrence of contaminants in groundwater is a large-scale public health issue, causing both acute and chronic illnesses. In the U.S., public water users are afforded protection from contaminant exposure under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. However, the roughly 44 million U.S. residents who rely on private wells are responsible for ensuring the safety of their own drinking water supplies. With no federal regulatory framework and subsequent funding in place, supporting well owners in managing the safety and quality of their well water falls to a fragmented system of state and local programs, which are limited by their oversight authority and resources.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) recently completed a study that suggests leveraging the strengths of partners interacting with private well users, including water quality professionals, can create a powerful mechanism to address health risks for private well users.

Sending a Survey

Since 2008, Minnesota law has required well drillers to test newly-constructed wells for arsenic, in addition to nitrate and coliform bacteria, and send the laboratory report to both the well owner and MDH. Approximately 11% of samples from newly-constructed wells in Minnesota exceed the arsenic maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 10 micrograms per liter (µg/L) for public water systems. In some counties, more than 35% of tested samples exceed 10 µg/L. Adverse health effects of arsenic, which can take years to develop, include diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory disease, reduced intelligence in children, and skin problems.

When the arsenic result for a new well is above 10µg/L, MDH mails educational materials to the well owner recommending they take action, such as installing a home water treatment system, to protect their household’s health. However, MDH did not know to what extent private well owners followed recommendations to reduce their exposure to arsenic. In 2016, MDH sent a survey to private well owners who had a new well sample with an arsenic concentration above 10 µg/L since 2008. The purpose was to collect information on:

  • Key factors that influenced the well owners’ decision to take protective action when notified of an arsenic concentration above the MCL;
  • Well owners’ stewardship behaviors;
  • Primary motivators and barriers to well stewardship behaviors; and
  • Preferred information formats and messengers.

Nearly 800 households participated in the survey. The survey results suggest five ways water quality professionals can help reduce the burden of water-related disease among private well users.

1. Continue being a trusted source of information. Thirty-six percent of respondents installed a treatment system to reduce their exposure to arsenic. Of those who installed a treatment system, 49% said they selected the treatment system based on a recommendation from their well contractor or water treatment company.

2. Boost private well users’ risk perception and help them understand that water treatment can be a feasible option to eliminate health risks. After receiving information from MDH that their well water contained an elevated level of arsenic, 34% of respondents took no action. The main reasons given for not taking action were that they were not concerned about the arsenic level (50%), or they were not sure what to do or whom to contact (21%). 25% started using bottled water for cooking and drinking, instead of tap water.

Help private well users understand that there are realhealth risks associated with contaminants common in groundwater. Many state or local health and environmental agencies have brochures and educational materials about groundwater contaminants. Help get these materials into private well users’ hands.

Partner with local health and environmental services to provide information about what treatment options are available if unsafe contaminant levels are found in drinking water and provide a general estimate for associated costs.

Make sure private well users and local health and environmental services know who they can contact to provide information about water treatment options.

3. Promote regular water testing. Less than 20% of respondents reported testing at the frequency MDH recommends for nitrate or coliform bacteria.

Many private well households seek out water quality professionals due to aesthetic issues with their water. When interacting with these well users, emphasize that there are many contaminants that can harm their health that do not affect the taste, smell or color of their water, such as arsenic, bacteria and nitrates. Encourage them to test for these contaminants.

Include content about contaminants on your website and provide written materials during home visits about the health hazards of water contaminants and your state’s recommendations for well water testing.

If the state or counties where you work offer well testing services to private well households, ask if they can provide you with test kits to distribute during home visits and at community events.

Offer free well water testing to private well households for contaminants of health concern.

4. Ensure your services and information are easy to access and understand. Fifteen percent of respondents who did not take action said they did not because treatment systems are too expensive. Fifteen percent also said they did not take action because treatment systems are too difficult to use and maintain. Thirty-seven percent of respondents agreed that it is hard to compare the pros and cons of treatments to reduce arsenic in water.

Factors such as income, the presence of children in the home and where respondents lived significantly increased the likelihood that a well user installed a treatment system. For example, respondents with annual incomes of more than $100,000 were more than twice as likely to install a treatment system as those with annual incomes under $40,000. Likewise, respondents that have a child living in the house or frequently visiting the house were more than 50% more likely to install a treatment system than those who do not have a child present. Finally, respondents in small towns and metropolitan areas were twice as likely to install a treatment system compared to those in rural areas.

Ensure well users know that there are effective treatment options available at a range of costs. Offer reduced rates or payment programs for low-income customers purchasing water treatment products.

Ensure outreach materials, information about water treatment, and water treatment maintenance materials use plain language and are easy to understand.

Connect customers with federal, state and local low-interest loan or grant programs that can help cover the cost of installing home water treatment systems. Conduct outreach and provide services in rural areas.

Find opportunities to connect with families with young children through local agencies and programs.

5. Use diverse communication channels to share water quality and safety information. Only 22% of respondents listed water treatment companies as one of their top three choices for sources of information to manage well safety and quality. Choices that were more popular included: water testing laboratory (43%), general internet search (39%), local government website or office (32%), and well drilling companies (31%).

Generally speaking, younger, more educated or higher-income respondents were more likely to prefer finding information on the internet for managing well safety and water quality. Older, less educated or lower-income respondents prefer finding information from water testing laboratories.

Provide water quality and treatment information through diverse channels to reach customers of varying age, education and income.

Make sure your company website has health-related information and includes links to more information about health risks of contaminants.

Partner with water testing laboratories, local government and well drilling companies to provide information about water treatment solutions.

Water treatment professionals have resources, technical expertise and outreach capabilities that can make a real difference in protecting private well users’ health. 

About the author

Deanna Scher is epidemiologist for the Environmental Health Division at the Minnesota Department of Health. Scher can be reached at [email protected] or 651.201.4922. Frieda von Qualen is health communications planner for the Well Management Program at the Minnesota Department of Health. von Qualen can be reached at [email protected] or 651.201.4547.

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