Environmental Risks in and around our Homes: Water Testing

This will be the first in a series of brief articles, with recommendations, about environmental risks at our homes in Vienna. I shall discuss the most common risks first, and how one assesses or measures them. In this article, I talk about when, how and for what you should consider testing your home water supply

There is, of course, no public water supply going to Vienna homes. The closest we get to that is the Kimball Pond Road public spring, which is tested several times a year by its stewards. Thus, all of us are responsible for assuring the safety of our own home water; our water sources are from springs, or drilled or dug wells, unless we live without running water.

So what should you worry about, what should you test for, and how often?

The most common contaminant are coliforms, Escherichia coli and related bacteria found in human or wild or domestic animal feces. Less commonly, Salmonella or Shigella and the Norovirus species may be transmitted in a similar way, and even less frequently, the parasites Cryptosporidium, Giardia (“beaver fever” and others. Preventing water supply contamination isn’t rocket science; we all know the septic system should be downhill and separated from the well. But in spring flooding, especially when much of the ground is still frozen, surface contamination can occur. Grazing cattle or other domestic animal facilities can pose a risk. Surface water sources (springs and often dug wells) are more likely to be contaminated than drilled wells, because it is easier for the poopy water to get in. The consequences of contaminated water are usually mild in healthy adults, nothing or diarrhea. But the young and the old are more susceptible to more severe symptoms and bacterial spread to the blood stream (sepsis), hence causing complications and sometimes death. You can’t rely on clarity, taste or smell to know contamination has occurred, because it only takes microscopic quantities. So you should test your water when you move in to your new house, anytime you think the well may have been exposed (a flood, a new barnyard nearby, etc) and probably every 5 or so years, because even with a drilled well protected somewhat by its casing, drawing water from a well can open up new water channels over time.

Testing is relatively easy: run your water for a few minutes to clear the system and take a sample midstream in a sample bottle the testing lab supplies, refrigerate it until you mail (not over a weekend) or deliver it. Ask for “coliforms”, and you usually can get “nitrates/nitrites” with it for the same price (about $30). Nitrates/nitrites are breakdown products of bacteria (we use them to screen urine samples for bacterial infections, on those dipsticks, as some of you may know), but also can come from non-fecal lawn or commercial fertilizer. The report should come with a clear “positive” or “insignificant” answer within a week or so.

And while you are collecting and sending that water sample, consider adding, for an additional price, one or two additional tests. We live in an area with lots of granite bedrock, which can contain arsenic. It is the inorganic type that is the problem, in contrast to the organic type found in lobsters and other seafoods. Arsenic poisoning is a cause of premature dementia (looks like Alzheimer’s disease), but only the inorganic type. Several times I’ve found an elevated total arsenic level in a patient only to find on further testing that it was the organic type from their diet, and not in their water or an issue. That’s an additional $20.

Finally, if there are young children in the house, knowing if you have fluoride in your water is helpful. They need it badly and few places in Maine have it. So you could save yourself some money over time by knowing you have enough in your water without having to buy them supplements, which they will otherwise need. You can get all 3 for $60-$70 plus a bunch of other elements, like copper, iron, manganese, chromium, lead, uranium, radon, and so on; but these are either very rarely a problem or better tested for in other ways, which I’ll go into in future articles.

I use and like the State of Maine Public Health Lab for this testing because I know and trust their people and systems. But there are many private, certified water testing labs in Maine (http://www.informe.org/hetl/).

Next time, I’ll discuss other potential environmental hazards in our homes. But in the meantime, know for sure that smoking tobacco anywhere and especially in your home endangers not only you, but your family as well, more than any of the risks I’ve discussed above. And home fires from stoves, faulty wiring, and careless care of flammable substances come in a close second. Please avoid those, if you do nothing else.

Feel free to call me if I can help you.

Dan Onion, MD

Vienna Health Officer, 293-2076

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