With nearly half of Carroll County households on private wells, it's in the best interest for residents to protect their water sources.
The National Ground Water Association's third annual "Protect Your Groundwater Day," aims to help homeowners with wells take better care of them.
Forty-nine percent of Carroll County households are on private wells, said Tom Devilbiss, deputy director of the county's Department of Land Use, Planning and Development. Those wells are not held to any maintenance standards, he said, so it is in a resident's best interest to protect and maintain their wells themselves.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that homeowners with private wells test them annually for bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids and pH levels using a state-certified laboratory. And any time contamination or tampering with a well is suspected, or if you notice a change in water taste, odor, color or clarity, the EPA recommends testing as well.
"People often take things for granted with their water well systems, but it's not unlike automobiles or the furnace in your home," said Cliff Treyens, public information director of the National Ground Water Association.
Like cars and furnaces, wells do best when kept on a regular maintenance schedule, Treyens said, and his organization recommends yearly check-ups for your system to prevent any catastrophic issues from happening down the road.
There are different aspects of well maintenance that homeowners can check for themselves, too, he said. For instance, water wells have a pipe that extends vertically out of the ground called the well case, and on top of that sits the well cap, he said.
"A well cap needs to be secure and it needs to be in good condition," Treyens said. "If it's cracked, or if it's loose, it can provide an opening for bacteria to get into the well, so that's one potential source of bacterial contamination."
Bumping the well casing with a lawn mower can cause a crack in the pipe or the grout, he said, making it susceptible to contamination.
Many people on water well systems also have septic systems, he said. A septic system is a very effective way of treating household wastewater if that septic system is well maintained.
"However, if the septic system has not been well maintained, and it's not operating properly, then it may not be treating the wastewater properly, and that could end up creating a problem with groundwater," he said.
It may not always be your own groundwater that is being contaminated by your faulty septic system, he said, because if a septic system is constructed properly, the fluid from the septic system should be down slope from the water well.
"But it could end up affecting somebody else's water supply," he said, which is just as serious.
Charles Mooshian, lab director of Fountain Valley Analytical Laboratory in Westminster, said that as the only state-certified private lab operating in Carroll County, he gets a lot of residents coming to him with questions about their water quality.
"We get a lot of people bringing in samples saying 'we want to know if our water is safe to drink,'" he said.
The most common tests are for bacteria and nitrates, he said, which are considered acute contaminants, meaning if you take a drink of water with that contaminant present, it could cause an immediate health concern.
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Most of the other contaminants are classified as chronic contaminants, he said, where you have to consume the contaminant over a period of time before it will cause health concerns. Benzene, found in gasoline, is an example of a contaminant that can cause cancer if consumed at a certain concentration regularly over a period of years, he said.
Even though they're not as dangerous as the acute contaminants, the EPA urges people to get a more extensive baseline test for some of these chronic contaminants at some point to ensure their safety.
Mooshian said he will ask customers specific questions about their home that can give clues to what kind of contaminants could be present. For example, an older home with original copper piping and lead soldering could be susceptible to lead contamination, he said. A home with an underground fuel tank or that previously had an underground fuel tank could have peteroleum-related contaminants.
Then there are other naturally occurring contaminants specific to the geography of your home, such as radon or fluoride, he said. Fluoride in itself is not a health threat, he said, but a dentist may recommend a test of a home's groundwater for fluoride before recommending a fluoride supplement, because consuming fluoride can lead to fluorosis, which causes spotted teeth.
Nitrates are another naturally occurring contaminant that is particularly prevalent in Carroll County, Mooshian said. Nitrates can come from septic system effluent, agricultural runoff or even commercial fertilizers.
According to the EPA, infants younger than 6 months old who drink water containing nitrates in excess of the maximum contaminant level could become seriously ill and, if untreated, may die. Symptoms include shortness of breath and blue baby syndrome.
"Some of these things can end up in the groundwater and may not cause any change in the appearance, odor or taste of the water, but they're still there," Treyens said. "If you do certain things, you have a much higher level of assurance that your water can be safe."