The first step to protect your health and the health of your family is learning about what may pollute your source of drinking water. Potential contamination may occur naturally, or as a result of human activity.
What are some naturally occurring sources of pollution?
- micro-organisms: Bacteria, viruses, parasites and other microorganisms are sometimes found in water. Shallow wells — those with water close to ground level — are at most risk. Runoff, or water flowing over the land surface, may pick up these pollutants from wildlife and soils. This is often the case after flooding. Some of these organisms can cause a variety of illnesses. Symptoms include nausea and diarrhea. These can occur shortly after drinking contaminated water. The effects could be short-term yet severe (similar to food poisoning), or might recur frequently or develop slowly over a long time.
- radionuclides: Radionuclides are radioactive elements, such as uranium and radium. They may be present in underlying rock and ground water.
- radon: Radon is a gas that is a natural product of the breakdown of uranium in the soil and can also pose a threat. Radon is most dangerous when inhaled, and contributes to lung cancer. Although soil is the primary source, using household water containing radon contributes to elevated indoor radon levels. Radon is less dangerous when consumed in water, but remains a risk to health.
- nitrates and nitrites: Although high nitrate levels are usually due to human activities (see below), they may be found naturally in ground water. They come from the breakdown of nitrogen compounds in the soil. Flowing ground water picks them up from the soil. Drinking large amounts of nitrates and nitrites is particularly threatening to infants (for example, when mixed in formula).
- heavy metals: Underground rocks and soils may contain arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and selenium. However, these contaminants are not often found in household wells at dangerous levels from natural sources.
- fluoride: Fluoride is helpful in dental health, so many water systems add small amounts to drinking water. However, excessive consumption of naturally occurring fluoride can damage bone tissue. High levels of fluoride occur naturally in some areas. It may discolor teeth, but this is not a health risk.
What human activities can pollute ground water?
bacteria and nitrates: These pollutants are found in human and animal wastes. Septic tanks can cause bacterial and nitrate pollution. So can large numbers of farm animals. Both septic systems and animal manure must be carefully managed to prevent pollution. Sanitary landfills and garbage dumps are also sources. Children and some adults are at higher risk when exposed to waterborne bacteria. These include the elderly and people whose immune systems are weak due to AIDS or treatments for cancer. Fertilizers can add to nitrate problems. Nitrates cause a health threat in very young infants called “blue baby syndrome." This condition disrupts oxygen flow in the blood.
Septic tanks are designed to have a leach field around them, which is an area where wastewater flows out of the tank. This wastewater can also move into the ground water.
- concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs): The number of CAFOs, often called “factory farms,” is growing. On these farms, thousands of animals are raised in a small space. The large amounts of animal waste/manure from these farms can threaten water supplies. Strict and careful manure management is needed to prevent pathogen and nutrient problems. Salts from high levels of manure can also pollute ground water.
- heavy metals: Activities such as mining and construction can release large amounts of heavy metals into nearby ground water sources. Some older fruit orchards may contain high levels of arsenic, once used as a pesticide. At high levels, these metals pose a health risk.
- fertilizers and pesticides: Farmers use fertilizers and pesticides to promote growth and reduce insect damage. These products are also used on golf courses and suburban lawns and gardens. The chemicals in these products may end up in ground water. Such pollution depends on the types and amounts of chemicals used and how they are applied. Local environmental conditions (soil types, seasonal snow and rainfall) also affect this pollution. Many fertilizers contain forms of nitrogen that can break down into harmful nitrates. This could add to other sources of nitrates mentioned above. Some underground agricultural drainage systems collect fertilizers and pesticides. This polluted water can pose problems to ground water and local streams and rivers. In addition, chemicals used to treat buildings and homes for termites and other pests may also pose a threat. Again, the possibility of problems depends on the amount and kind of chemicals. The types of soil and the amount of water moving through the soil also play a role.
- industrial products and waste: Many harmful chemicals are used widely in local business and industry. These can pollute drinking water if not well-managed. The most common sources of such problems are:
- local businesses: These include nearby factories, industrial plants, and even small businesses such as gas stations and dry cleaners. All handle a variety of hazardous chemicals that need careful management. Spills and improper disposal of these chemicals and other industrial wastes can threaten ground water supplies.
- leaking underground tanks and piping: Petroleum products, chemicals and waste stored in underground storage tanks and pipes may end up in the ground water. Tanks and piping leak if they are constructed or installed improperly. Steel tanks and piping corrode with age. Tanks are often found on farms. The possibility of leaking tanks is great on old, abandoned farm sites. Farm tanks are exempt from the EPA rules for petroleum and chemical tanks.
- landfills and waste dumps: Modern landfills are designed to contain any leaking liquids. But floods can carry them over the barriers. Older dumpsites may have a wide variety of pollutants that can seep into ground water.
- household waste: Improper disposal of many common products can pollute ground water. These include cleaning solvents, used motor oil, paints, and paint thinners. Even soaps and detergents can harm drinking water. These are often a problem from faulty septic tanks and septic leaching fields.
- lead and copper: Household plumbing materials are the most common source of lead and copper found in home drinking water. Corrosive water may cause metals in pipes or soldered joints to leach into your tap water. Your water’s acidity or alkalinity (often measured as pH) greatly affects corrosion. Temperature and mineral content also affect how corrosive it is. They are often used in pipes, solder and plumbing fixtures. Lead can cause serious damage to the brain, kidneys, nervous system, and red blood cells. The age of plumbing materials — in particular, copper pipes soldered with lead — is also important. Even in relatively low amounts, these metals can be harmful. The EPA rules under the Safe Drinking Water Act limit lead in drinking water to 15 parts per billion. Since 1988, the Act allows only lead-free pipe, solder and flux in drinking water systems. The law covers both new installations and repairs of plumbing.