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Partner Blog

Information of use to those who serve private well owners.

Can you explain reverse osmosis treatment and discuss its limitations and what it is effective at treating?

Question

Can you explain reverse osmosis treatment and discuss its limitations and what it is effective at treating?

Answer

Reverse osmosis is a water treatment process which primarily involves pushing water through a semipermeable membrane to separate pure water molecules from other ions, molecules, and larger particles. It is important to first understand the term “osmosis.” Osmosis is the movement of a solvent (like water) through a semipermeable membrane, from a less concentrated solution to a more concentrated solution. This natural process will continue until concentrations are equal. Pressure can be applied to the more concentrated side of the membrane to stop this flow, and this is called the osmotic pressure. If even more pressure is applied, in excess of the osmotic pressure, the flow is reversed. This technique/process is called reverse-osmosis. See figure 1 (EPA, 1):

Figure 1: osmosis and reverse osmosis visualized

While the membrane material and its interactions with the various components present in the solution is an important factor in determining removal efficiency, you can generally think of an RO membrane as a very fine filter, with the pore size being a primary guiding factor of what can be removed. Of the common membrane filtration technologies (microfiltration, ultrafiltration, nanofiltration, reverse osmosis), reverse-osmosis has the smallest general pore size, approximately 0.0001 micron (CDC, 2). This is small enough to remove most bacteria, viruses, and many common chemical contaminants.

A typical household reverse-osmosis system is shown in Figure 2. Most are point-of-use units meant to fit in small places, like under a sink. These systems typically have other filters (like a sediment filter and a carbon filter) in front of the RO membrane to help protect it and extend its life. They also will have a holding tank and a spout for dispensing the purified water. Some will have a carbon filter after the membrane for final polishing/cleanup. With units that are working properly, we typically expect to see a total dissolved solids removal rate of about 90% or more.

Figure 2: typical reverse-osmosis system (photo by Dan Webb)

Reverse osmosis systems are generally effective at removing (1, 2, 3): 

  • Bacteria 
  • Viruses 
  • Protozoa 
  • Total dissolved solids 
  • Inorganic ions and salts, like sodium, chloride, copper, chromium, lead, fluoride, aluminum, barium, cadmium, hardness, iron, manganese, nitrate, radium, selenium, sulfate. 

Some may also remove arsenic, chlorine, and organic compounds, but often these can be difficult to remove, depending on various conditions. Most (probably all) systems will have a carbon filter within the unit, and this should help reduce the concentration of chlorine and organic components. It should also be noted that while RO system will remove microorganisms, it is best to use other methods to prevent these before they get to this treatment stage. If living organisms are present and get do get through the membrane, they can cause biological growth later, like in the final carbon filter, if one is present.

The nature of the membrane material, the chemical properties of the target contaminant, and the pH of the water can all affect removal efficiency. Charged species like ions tend to be more easily removed than neutral, uncharged components. For typical groundwater, with a pH of around 7 – 8, and typical reverse osmosis systems, boron can be difficult to remove. Similarly, arsenic can be challenging to remove sometimes, likely due to the nature of the arsenic species in groundwater sources. Arsenic typically occurs in water in two oxidation states: As(III), “arsenic three,” arsenite; and As(V), “arsenic five,” arsenate. Arsenic(III) tends to be present as an uncharged form H3AsO3, and is typically more difficult to remove than arsenic(V), which usually exists as H2AsO4- or HAsO42- (both charged species). Some consumers have had good luck improving arsenic removal by adding an oxidation step (like chlorine) ahead of the RO unit. 

To check specific analytes, it may be helpful to check NSF’s list of certified reverse osmosis drinking water treatment systems: http://info.nsf.org/Certified/DWTU/Listings.asp?TradeName=&Standard=058&ProductType=&PlantState=&PlantCountry=&PlantRegion=&submit3=Search&hdModlStd=ModlStd

Reverse osmosis systems produce about 1 gallon of purified water for every 4 gallons of water fed into the system, with the rest diverted to a waste drain. This can vary between units, though, so if this is a concern, it is important to research this ahead of time. 

The end water produced by reverse osmosis should have very low mineralization, with properties similar to distilled water. The pH will be low (can vary, but generally be slightly acidic… around 6 pH units), but because there is very little buffering capacity, this will generally change quickly as it mixes with other solutions or solids, and typically this is not a concern for consumption of RO water. 

As with other water treatment devices, it is important to remember to maintain reverse osmosis systems properly. As mentioned earlier, there will often be filters in place within the unit ahead of the membrane, and many consumers will have other/external treatments devices, first, like water softeners. These treatment steps and filters help to prevent fouling of the membrane, which helps to keep it at peak removal efficiency. Fouling can result from microbial growth/contamination, hardness/mineral precipitation, organic hydrocarbon coating, or particle accumulation on the surface of the membrane. Pre-membrane filters and post-membrane filters, in addition to the membrane itself, should be replaced on a regular basis to keep the unit working properly. Frequency will depend on the water conditions and household use.

References: 

1) US EPA, EPA 815-R-06-009: MEMBRANE FILTRATION GUIDANCE MANUAL 

2) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: A Guide to Drinking Water Treatment Technologies for Household Use.

3) NSF: Consumer Fact Sheet, What is Reverse Osmosis

FAQ response provided by Daniel Webb, Illinois State Water Survey Chemist / Public Service Laboratory Coordinator, (217) 244-0625, danwebb@illinois.edu

Words of Wisdom from a Well Owner

Words of Wisdom from a Well Owner

Many of the private well owners we come into contact with have been on the fence about testing their well water. We recently received an email from a well owner that was willing to share his experience with others to encourage them not to wait as long as he did (13 years!) to have their well water tested. We interviewed Ralph W. from North Carolina to learn more about his experience and the outcome from the perspective of a well owner.


Q: Can you please give me a little bit of bio on your home and private well? How long have you lived in your home?

RW: 13 years.

Q: Did you know there was a private well when you bought it?

RW: Yes.

Q: What were your initial thoughts on the private well?

RW: I grew up with well water and preferred it to the taste of city water, plus it meant not having to pay a water bill.

Q: Did you drink water from your private well while you lived there?

RW: Yes.

Q: When was the first time you tested your well water and what finally made you decide to test your private well?

RW: We had the water tested for bacteria about 12 years ago and the report showed no coliform contamination. In the summer of 2018 we had the water tested by the City of Raleigh Health Department for all of the organic and inorganic tests that they do and subsequently received a phone call telling us to stop drinking the water because it was contaminated with dieldrin. We tested because of urging from the privatewellclass.org website and from my wife. I thought it was going to be a waste of money.

Q: What was your experience with the well testing?

RW: For $225, the city health department sent out a representative who collected and submitted the water samples.

Q: What contaminants did you test the water for?

RW: In addition to retesting for coliform bacteria, tests were run for a wide range of inorganic minerals and an even wider range of possible organic contaminants.

Q: Did the results surprise you?

RW: It shocked us!

Q: What did the test results say after you had your well tested? Did anything surprise you about your test results?

RW: Yes! We learned that the well water was contaminated with 2 ppb of a very toxic pesticide.

Q: What sort of treatment did you have to do after you received the results?

RW: We immediately switched to drinking bottled water until we could be connected to city water which was available on our street.

Q: Did you receive any aid to treat your water?

RW: Yes. A state administered fund paid the entire cost of connecting to city water and closing the well.

Q: What advice would you give to a well owner who might be on the fence about testing their well?

RW: I very much regret not having tested the water sooner.


Testing your well regularly is probably the most important thing a well owner can do to protect their family’s health. We recommend sampling for nitrate and coliform bacteria annually. These constituents are common and provide an indicator that there is likely a pathway into your well from or near the surface. We also suggest contacting your local health agency for advice and additional information on sampling for additional constituents once every 3 -5 years.

Brochures? For Sure!

Brochures? For Sure!

How do you get your message out? In-person workshops? What about online webinars or social media? Do flyers still work? What about brochures?


Professionals conducting education and outreach activities often wonder if brochures have gone out of style. We, at the Private Well Class, recently launched a campaign to distribute several thousand brochures—and it was a resounding success! This indicates that brochures are not quite yet a way of the past. If you have ever considered a campaign featuring brochures, flyers, or pamphlets, consider what we have learned from our most recent campaign.


We often discuss barriers to reaching well owners, both behaviorally and demographically. Using a combination of online and in-person methods to help educate individual private well owners helps us extend our reach. This year, our staff developed and distributed a Spanish and English version of a brochure for partners to hand out to well owners. The brochure contains information on useful steps that a well owner can take to make sure that their drinking water is actually safe to consume.


In order to reach as many well owners as possible, we ordered and mailed out brochures for partners to distribute, at no cost to them. Extending the network through our partners was a key component of this campaign. By helping one another, both parties benefitted – our partners received free brochures to help well owners in their county, while we were able to extend our universal message of helping well owners be a better steward of their well and water system.


For the first brochure mailing, we mailed out over 31,000 copies of our English and Spanish brochures. In our second brochure mailing, we are planning to send out 21,000 more.


We asked partners who have received the brochures to give us their feedback. Some of the responses were insightful in terms of how the brochures were distributed and why they were so popular among partners:


“Thank you for providing these brochures. We are a small Health Department with limited funding so this enables us to provide quality education to our well owners.” - Toledo, IL


“Thank you so much for providing this resource. It is a great place to start a conversation with a well owner about being a good steward of their drinking water.” - Columbus, OH


“I think this is a fantastic idea for private owners.” - Montesano, WA


“I pass these out to the well owners when I sample their wells. I also hand them out at health fairs and environmental festivals. Very useful information.” - Wyandotte, OK


“We distribute to real estate agents who work closely with property owners on wells.” - Lincoln City, OR


Want brochures to distribute? Have a questions? You can email us at info@privatewellclass.org to be placed on the wait list for our next mailing or to reach us with your inquiry.

Free Class Now Part of NEHA's Updated eLearning Center

More than two years ago we announced the availability of our free class on the National Environmental Health Association's eLearning platform, with 10 pre-approved CEs for environmental health professionals.

NEHA recently switched technology providers and we are excited to share that our class has made the move. Plus, it's now trackable within your NEHA account.

The Private Well Course is a 10-lesson, self-paced version of The Private Well Class, our 10-week email program for well owners. There's no need to wait. You can access everything at once when you log on with NEHA. Here's how you can access this content for free and without being NEHA member:

Step 1. Create a free account or log in to an existing account on the MyNEHA member portal.

Step 2. If you are asked to purchase a membership, press the "Cancel" button. You will be redirected to a dashboard.

Step 3. Click the "Online Store" tab and then the "NEHA Partner Courses" link.

Step 4. Locate "The Private Well Course" and click the "Add to Cart" button.

Step 5. Click the "View Shopping Cart" link in the upper right.

Step 6. Press the "Checkout" button. You will be directed to a confirmation screen.

Step 7. Press the "Place Order" button.

Step 8. Check your email and follow the instructions to access your course at neha.moonami.com using your MyNEHA login credentials.

Note: We are unable to provide support for NEHA login or continuing education issues. If you have any difficulty, you may email sezcurra@neha.org for customer service.

The Force Behind our Spanish Language Program

Forward by Steve Wilson:

About 4 years ago, we realized there was a need for Spanish language materials for the Private Well Class. Being at the University of Illinois and as an alum of the Civil Engineering program, I reached out to a professor I knew, Dr. Marcelo Garcia, to ask if he knew of any native Spanish speaking grad students that might be interested in working with us to translate our materials. He introduced me to Santiago Santacruz, a PhD student from Columbia who was here on a Fulbright and was really interested in what we wanted to do. Santiago was engaging, intelligent, and shared that one of his frustrations were technical materials that were poorly translated from English. He pointed out a number of examples of inappropriate translation and after our first meeting, I knew we had found the perfect person to help us. Santiago translated not only the class text, but also all of the figures in the text, and did an amazing job. Since then, he has worked on videos, conducted webinars, among other things.

Then, about 2 years ago, Ana Chara and Santiago got married. Ana was working on her PhD at the University of British Columbia. When she was finished she moved here and as Santiago’s student responsibilities changed, she was able to start working for us as well. By now, others had seen the work that Santiago had completed and we were asked if we could support other translation activities. The most exciting being the translation of 6 water operator videos, developed by the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, into Spanish. Ana did an amazing job, not only did she translate the videos, but she also had to memorize lines and be on camera to replace the English speaker in the original videos. She was a natural. She also developed a Spanish language video for homeowners on how to sample for lead, for a specific research project going on at the University.

We have relied on Santiago and Ana for so many things, they have been wonderful to work with. So, today, I wanted to share more of their story with everyone involved with the class. Santiago is finishing his PhD this summer and he and Ana will be going back home to Columbia in the near future. I can’t say enough how great they have been to work with, how much they have meant to our program, and how much they will be missed. They are both intelligent, driven people who I feel so lucky to have known. We all wish them the best.

Below, Katie asked them to answer a few questions that provide more detail about their Private Well Class work that gives you a better feel about who they are and some ideas and things to consider if you plan to translate your materials. At the end of the post are links to the Private Well Class Spanish materials, as well as the videos for water operators on operation and maintenance issues.

 

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourselves:

[Santiago]: I’m a Civil Engineer from Colombia. I am currently working on my PhD in Hydraulics at U of I. Water will always be a key topic for any society, it could be either a blessing or great threat. I want to help to facilitate access to clean water, protect communities from floods and droughts, and to guarantee that future generations can also benefit from healthy streams, wetlands, aquifers, and beaches.

[Ana]: I’m a Colombian Biologist with a M.Sc. in Aquatic Sciences from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in Freshwater Ecology from the University of British Columbia. I am interested in studying how human activities impact freshwater ecosystems and water resources, in order to facilitate the development of strategies to protect them.

Q: How did you get initially become involved with Spanish translation for the Private Well Class and Water Operator at the Illinois State Water Survey?

[Santiago]: I heard of this opportunity through my adviser, Prof. M. H. Garcia. It was a nice opportunity to help many that speak my language, to empower them by facilitating access to valuable information on their own well system.


Q: You were both involved in many facets of the program. What were some of the things that each of you had to do?

[Santiago]: My first task was to translate the entire Manual for Homeowners with Water Wells. I participated in a couple Live Webinars in Spanish, help to setup the Spanish website for the Private Well Class project. I also had to learn how to record audios, and edit videos for over 15 videoclips we translated to Spanish.

[Ana]: I helped with the translation of the video clips Santiago mentioned above and also had the great opportunity of participating in the shooting of the Spanish version of six RCAP videos. Recently, I participated in the translation of guidelines (videos, instruction sheets) for the collection of lead (Pb) samples.

 

Q: Of all the projects that you assisted with, what did you enjoy the most?

[Ana]: The experience of shooting the RCAP videos was definitely my favorite. I’m used to public speaking, but being the presenter in a video was completely new for me. It was a lot of fun!

Q: What do you think is the #1 problem of programs that attempt dual language content?

[Santiago]: In the US, the lack of detailed and specific materials compared to English content you can easily find in the websites of local and federal agencies. It’s a pity we suggest our Spanish audience to check out more details on a document that is in English, without even having technical dictionary to translate some concepts or names.

 

Q: What is your take-home-message for programs using a bilingual approach to their content?

[Ana]: Getting help from a native speaker who also has a basic understanding of the topic is crucial. There are many technical words and concepts that may not be translated accurately if one does not have a technical understanding of the subject matter. Computer translations are far from doing a job that reads/sound natural, and gets worse for special topics like groundwater and wells.

 

Q: When did you personally feel the most challenged when working on our projects?

[Santiago]: Finding the most accepted name or expression for a technical name. Spanish is a rich and diverse language, spoken by an entire continent. For instance, tap is commonly referred as grifo in Mexico, llave in Colombia, and canilla in Argentina. But canilla is shin in Colombia.

[Ana]: I agree with Santiago. Even among Latin American Spanish speakers there are huge differences in usage of words and even the tone. One thing we struggled often with was deciding whether to use usted or tu in our translations. Both words mean you but the first is more formal and respectful, which would be the default in countries like Colombia. However, in many other Latin American countries like Mexico, people may prefer to use tu. It is a subtle difference and both forms would be understood, but we wanted to make sure the translations sounded as natural as possible to our intended audience.

 

Q: What is your opinion regarding the need for a correctly translated Spanish versions of documents for water resource and private well related issues?

[Santiago]: Private well is the main water supply for millions in the US. Education and training on water wells help these people to reduce the risk of waterborne diseases, but more importantly to keep the aquifers safe for everybody, not only for Spanish speakers. Nobody trust a poorly written document, because instructions are not clear, but ambiguous and cause confusions, which is completely opposite to its purpose. For many well owner that feel more confident in Spanish than in English, this is a great way to reach them out, and assist them to help us all to keep our aquifers in good conditions.

 

Q: What do you think is the best way of reaching the Spanish speaking communities in the U.S.?

[Ana]: Providing good quality materials in Spanish is a great strategy. Language may be an important barrier for people, especially when it comes to technical material. The effort to translate this important information and making it available for free is a good starting point to reach these communities.

 

Q: For the duration of your time working on projects with the Illinois State Water Survey and PrivateWellClass.org, did anything surprise you or did you learn anything unexpected?

[Santiago]: I realized how limited is the information for non-English speakers, and it was surprising how little content was available even in States where the Spanish-speaking population is very large. But also was a nice surprise to know that the ISWS at U of I is doing such a great effort to assist all these well-owners on their own language.

[Ana]: I was surprised to learn there is such a big portion of the population depending on private wells for their water supply in the States. I was even more surprised to find out private well owners are mostly on their own when it comes to the operation and maintenance of their water systems. That is why the work ISWS is doing to support and train private well owners is so important!

 

Spanish Language Resources: 

The Spanish Language Private Well Class – www.clasepozosprivados.org 

Spanish Private Well videos (YouTube playlist) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9rgMXzDxks&list=PL2jExPDtEDs5afPxPOX4FENUdfqIduuhU 

RCAP Spanish Water Operator Videos: 

- Protección de la Calidad del Agua en el Sistema de Distribución https://vimeo.com/234746215 
- Inspección Periódica de un Reservorio de Agua https://vimeo.com/234561979 
- Calidad del Agua en Instalaciones de Almacenamiento https://vimeo.com/234561698 
- Buenas Prácticas para el Muestreo de Coliformes https://vimeo.com/234557994 
- Medición del Cloro Residual https://vimeo.com/234557428 
- Inspección y Vaciado https://vimeo.com/234869819

Advice from 2018’s Pledge to Test Winner

The Private Well Class celebrated 2018’s National Groundwater Awareness Week with the 3rd annual Pledge to Test campaign. Well owners were invited to pledge to get their well water tested. One participant was randomly selected to be reimbursed for the cost of testing the private well water at their residence, up to $200.

The randomly selected winner was Chad H. from Bellevue, WA. Chad owns a cabin that has a private well. We wanted to find out what Chad’s water testing experience was like and what sort of challenges he faced. Chad had his well water tested at AM Test Laboratories in Kirkland, WA.

 

Q: How did you hear about the Pledge to Test campaign from The Private Well Class?

CH: I heard about it via your Partner Newsletter.

Q: What made you interested in testing your private well water?

CH: I was concerned about family health and safety. I grew up on farms in the Midwest and had well water. With all the chemicals used on the farm ground, testing was something that was done, but not routinely, due to access to sample testing locations.


Q: What was the most challenging thing about collecting the sample or getting the test bottles?

CH: The most challenging thing was the about taking a sample was the proximity to the water testing laboratory. It is over 3 hours away from the house we had sampled. The house is cabin of ours.


Q: What was one thing about taking a sample that surprised you?

CH: Nothing really surprised me when taking this sample.

Q: After you received the results, was there anything that you changed in your home? Like adding a filtration system?

CH: Our water tests came back negative, meaning nothing was needed for system changes. Our current system includes a sediment filter.


Q: What piece of advice would you tell other private well owners about testing their well water, other than to get it tested?

CH: I would recommend setting up a routine, like when changing clocks and/or smoke alarm batteries as a reminder. It is easy to forget about, especially if nothing is noticed regarding the taste or smell of home. Testing is easy, although can be potentially expensive due to proximity to lab(s) and/or testing fees.


Celebrating Earth Day with the Peoria Clean Water Celebration

On April 23, Ken Hlinka, Katie Buckley, and Hideyuki Terashima represented the Illinois State Water Survey at the 26th SUN Foundation Clean Water Celebration in Peoria, IL. The Sun Foundation for the Advancement on the Environmental Sciences and Arts is organized exclusively for education, scientific, and charitable purposes. The event took place in the Peoria Civic Center from 9:00AM to 2:00PM where 337 volunteers from 39 groups, organizations, and agencies were represented, including the Illinois EPA, The Dickson Mounds Museum, Girl Scouts of America, Living Lands and Waters, and more. The event was attended by 2,043 students and 153 adults from 37 different schools.

ISWS staff described the water cycle, demonstrated how groundwater moves under the ground using two different sand tank models, and demonstrated a hand pump for the middle schoolers in attendance. Students were asked about the water cycle, which many students were already familiar with, so they were encouraged to describe the parts of the cycle on their own before the focus was turned to groundwater. Using the two groundwater flow models, a Septic System Simulator and Groundwater Flow Simulator, they described how groundwater and contaminants flow through the ground. Using colored dye, they showed how contamination can flow towards private wells. The take home message really resonated with some of the students as they asked questions and wanted to experiment with different contamination scenarios. For the hand pump demonstration, the setup showed where water comes from and staff described the parts of the well. 

For this event, students were given a set of questions that they had to get answered at each booth as they walked through the exhibit hall. Our questions were: 

1. Water flows through the ground like _______ flows through a wire.

2. What should a private well owner do every year? Each student had to pay attention to the demonstration to get the answers they needed.

Events like the Clean Water Celebration are a unique opportunity to share information with students in an engaging and memorable way that they won’t get in the classroom. If you have an event list this in your area, we encourage you to participate and share your knowledge of private well and groundwater issues. If not, consider developing a stakeholder group to put one on. Private well and groundwater issues are not common curriculum in most schools, events like these can leave a lasting impression on a young student, especially if they live on a private well.

Hideyuki Terashima said, “I could tell that with some of the kids, it really just clicked. Seeing them experience groundwater hands-on really resonated with them."











Fairs, Festivals, and Farmers Markets - Oh My!

Fairs, Festivals, and Farmers Markets - Oh My!

It’s no surprise that private well owners, in general, are hard to reach. This is because they can come from every social, economic, and educational demographic. The Private Well Class is always interested in how private well partners reach out to well owners in their area. We asked Alyson McCann about how she reaches well owners with her private well program.

But first, a little bit about Alyson; Alyson McCann is the Cooperative Extension Water Quality Coordinator in the College of Environment and Life Sciences at the University of Rhode Island. She has over 25 years of experience developing and delivering local, regional and national programs focused on water resource protection for a variety of audiences, the impact of which has been to affect behavior change to achieve public and environmental health protection. She has a history of effectively coordinating community and governmental engagement activities working with local, state, regional and federal partners to achieve water quality protection. Her work most notably focuses on private drinking water well protection; collaborating with the Rhode Island Department of Health and local communities to provide residents with the tools and resources needed to protect their drinking water quality; and providing technical assistance to private well owners to facilitate action to protect their health, their families’ health and the environment. She has developed numerous private well protection tip sheets and provides educational programs and technical assistance to both well owners and professional audiences. Program materials are audience-tested with focus groups and interviews to achieve clear communication that results in measured program impacts and audience behavior change.

McCann is also a member of URI’s GeoSpatial Extension Program and develops and trains professionals in the use of geospatial technologies and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). She is currently a reviewer for the Journal of Extension. She has worked with and mentored numerous graduate and undergraduate students.


What made you decide to promote your program during the Rhode Island farmer’s markets and fairs?

AM: We dedicated program efforts to an intensive Intercept Campaign as a pilot project in 2015 and have continued to expand and build upon these efforts to increase our effectiveness. In addition to offering community workshops - where people have to come to us - we wanted to be in places where people are already going – they didn’t need to make a special effort to interact with us. Community farmers markets, fairs and festivals seemed like a logical place to start. A team of well-trained undergraduate Coastal Fellow students attend 2 – 3 community events and farmers markets weekly with our private well water display. Table 1 summarizes the number of events and number of people interacted with at these events. In 2017, we expanded upon the “Intercept Campaign” and piloted a facilitated well water testing kit pick up, where we distributed annual test kits from the RI State Health Lab and scheduled 4 community pick ups at which private well owners could return their well water sample, payment and paperwork to us and we would deliver the samples to the lab in Providence, RI. Since this program addition, we have seen an increase in the number of private well owners who have their drinking water well tested.

Table 1: Intercept Campaign Summary, 2015-2017

Year

Number of Events Attended

Number of private well owners interacted with

Number of people who returned a water sample to us for transport to RI State Health Lab

2015

38

901

*

2016

29

1030

*

2017

37

1125

52


* Facilitated testing not offered until 2017 pilot program.

How many events have you done and do you plan on doing more next summer?

AM: Please see Table 1 above. We are currently continuing this effort in 2018 attending winter markets, the RI Home Show and other community events. We are in the planning stages for summer efforts right now.


Have you formed any meaningful partnerships as a result of these outreach efforts?

AM: Absolutely! We make it a point to interact and stay in touch with market and event coordinators. We get invited back and the organizers of these events appreciate our participation. In addition, we are invited to participate in other community events.

In your opinion, how successful have you been at these events and how many water test kits did you give away?

AM: They are very successful. As you can see from Table 1 – we talk with lots of private well owners, many of who sign up for our quarterly newsletter and attend a local workshop. We plan to expand our water test kit efforts this summer. In addition, it is a highly successful opportunity for our undergraduate students. They receive fabulous training and experience interacting with people and providing education and technical assistance. Once our students are trained, we visit them at these events throughout the summer – checking in to see how they are doing, answering any of their concerns, etc. We also have weekly meetings scheduled to discuss how things are going in the field.


What has been the biggest challenge promoting your program at these events?

AM: It takes a few years to determine what events are most productive – meaning that community members are interested in the information we are providing and that the event is well attended.


What would you tell an organization who is considering participating in a farmer’s market or other local event in this manner?

AM: Make sure the event is in an area where your target audience is. You often have to give an event more than one try before determining if it is worth the time and effort to be there. Have fun. Typically, your audience is out to enjoy themselves at these events and if you can too, all the better.


Why Sometimes Newer Isn’t Always Better: Minnesota Department of Health’s Well Disinfection Guide

Why Sometimes Newer Isn’t Always Better: Minnesota Department of Health’s Well Disinfection Guide

We always receive questions from homeowners across the country on how to properly disinfect a private well. There are many different private well disinfection guides available for private well owners through many public health, extension and state organizations across the U.S. The Private Well Class has used the Minnesota Department of Health’s Well Disinfection guide in our 10-week class and in our Resource Library. After careful review of all of the information on well disinfection available, our opinion is that the MDH guide is one of the best and most complete available.

However, in 2015, MDH updated the 2012 “Well and Water System Disinfection for Private Wells,” with a newer, shorter “Well Disinfection” guide. Honestly, we were disappointed in the new guide because in making it shorter, they also took out some of the details that made their guide so complete. The bottom line is that we are still referring private well owners to the 2012 version of the document in our resource library and in our lessons. The step-by-step process hasn’t changed much between the two, but the supporting information has. The content in the 2012 version is not only more in-depth, but it provides more background information that tells you why you are doing something in the process instead of just how to do it. It clearly explains what disinfection is and what might cause contamination of the well and water system.

The 2012 version addresses two important questions about disinfection, “How Often Should a Well be Tested?” and “When Should a Well be Disinfected?” It provides sound advice, some of which is missing in the newer version. Understanding when to disinfect is an important issue, we often talk to private well owners who have/are disinfecting their well when it is not necessary.

The only time you should disinfect your well is after sampling indicates you have bacteria. Testing should be completed annually, as well as any time the well has been opened, or there has been an event that has impacted your well (after a flood, fire, repairs, etc.).

The Minnesota Department of Health’s Well Management Program stands out as a leader among their peers and we often refer well owners to their materials. We thought it worth noting that though we like the older version of their well disinfection guide better, we rely on many of their materials to support well owners all over the country. You can find their website at: http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/wells/


Well and Water System Disinfection for Private Wells (2012 version)

Well Disinfection (2015 version)

 

Our Partners Speak! January Partner Poll

In our January Partner Newsletter we asked our subscribers to answer the following question:

“Should coliform bacteria sample results be provided to well owners as presence/absence or a quantified number of colonies?”

We received eight responses:

Quantify the results

7

Presence/absence

1

 

Most coliform bacteria are not harmful, but they are an indicator for the potential presence of pathogens. When coliform bacteria are present in a private well water supply, there is a possible contamination pathway for a source of bacteria (surface water, septic system, animal waste, etc.) or other contaminant into your well. In other words, harmful bacteria may use this same pathway to enter your drinking water supply.

When coliform are present in a water supply, a follow-up test for E. coli is typically recommended. E. coli are the best indicator of potential health hazards, as they are only found in the gut and feces of warm-blooded animals. (To learn more about the basics of coliform bacteria, this guide from the New York Department of Health is helpful.)

The presence/absence test is simple, inexpensive, and goes by the theory that any coliform indicates a potential breach in the well. So if present, disinfect and don’t drink the water until the test comes back negative.

The camp that believes you should quantify the number of colonies thinks that understanding the magnitude of the contamination provides a better understanding of the possible causes. So, as one of our respondents noted, having one colony vs. hundreds certainly tells you something more than a presence/absence test.

The following response best sums up the argument from a public health perspective:

“There are some wells in our county that will continuously come back with a result of 1 (colony) test after test and shocking after shocking. There are also some wells that routinely come back over the maximum quantification level even after shocking. I feel like these two wells are completely different situations. The first well appears to have minor contamination while the second well has major contamination. Yes, they both pose a risk, but very few things are perfect in this world. I would be much more comfortable drinking out of the first well than the second well. Without quantification, there is no way to tell the difference between these two wells. If someone has repeated low levels of bacteria, I would recommend retesting more frequently to see how it changes; whereas the second well I would encourage them to talk to a contractor about rehabilitating the well or repairing the well system.”

The real take-home message from this exercise, at least based on the 8 responses we received, was that this is a confusing issue. Several responses mentioned bacteria being found miles below the earth for instance, and several assumed we were talking about fecal coliform in our question (E. coli), when we were not. We were asking about the total coliform test that is a requirement for community water supplies and considered the standard approach to judging the safety of a well from near-surface contamination.

Regarding the bacteria found at depth issue, bacteria are ubiquitous in our environment, indeed, but they are not all coliform bacteria. Iron bacteria, sulfate-reducing bacteria, and methanogenic bacteria, for instance, are all found in aquifers in Illinois. They actually help us understand other issues, like the reducing condition of the water in an aquifer, but they do not cause health issues. Several respondents seemed to think that all bacteria are a health risk; this is not the case.

Regarding the total coliform vs. fecal coliform vs. E. coli issue, testing for total coliform bacteria is a simple way to determine possible exposure to pathogens. The idea is to test for total coliform first because it’s easier and cheaper. Then, if there is a positive result, test for E. coli. We could have made this clearer, for sure, but for those who work with these results daily, the debate over a positive result versus a quantifiable result was the issue we were hoping to explore.

We were leaning more into the presence/absence camp when we started PrivateWellClass.org five years ago, to be honest. After all, any coliform means there could be a risk, and that is still true. But after hearing from many professionals, including at our conference last May, about the value of knowing the magnitude of the exposure, we are now leaning the other way. Both certainly have value, but, quantifying the test result does give you more information and provides value in making a decision.

If you would still like to chime in with your thoughts and opinions, we would love to hear from you. Take the poll