Common water contaminants
Bacteria: Coliform bacteria such as E. coli can be found, especially in shallow wells, and often indicates other contaminants may be in the water such as those that cause cholera and typhoid-fever, dysentery, polio and hepatitis and roundworm and tapeworm.
Lead/copper: These can often be the result of water wearing on household pipes and often cause stains in bathtubs and sinks. Too much lead can damage the brain, nervous system, kidneys, reproductive system and red blood cells. Copper is much less toxic than lead; however, elevated levels of copper can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Nitrates: These can be a concern in an agricultural area with heavy manure application or on a lot with a poorly installed or maintained septic tank. High nitrate levels can cause a condition called methemoglobinemia or blue baby syndrome. Symptoms include a bluish tint to the skin, headaches, dizziness, weakness and difficulty breathing.
Uranium: This element can be found in wells in North Georgia that are deeper than 100 feet. Ingesting uranium can cause kidney malfunction.
Information from the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension
Well water might smell and taste fine, but that doesn’t always mean it is fine, according to the University of Georgia Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Laboratories.
“People might see crystal clear water, but it’s heavily contaminated,” said Laura Daniel, a research professional in the UGA Feed and Environmental Laboratory. “The main issue is gastrointestinal illness, diarrhea and vomiting. People can have these illnesses and think they ate something that was bad, but sometimes it could be your
Only about 3 percent of wells in Georgia are tested regularly, according to AESL.
The well on Gainesville resident Suzanne Johnson’s property has not been tested since the house was built two years ago.
Johnson doesn’t drink the well water regularly — the family purchases filtered water — but said she’s had no problems with it when she does.
“We had it tested right before (the Johnson family) moved in,” said Danny Handley, who owns the Johnsons’ residence. “We have a little sediment in there and a filter in the wellhouse.”
In order to reduce the risk of contaminants, residents should have their wells tested annually, Hall County Extension Coordinator Michael Wheeler said.
“It’s up to the homeowner to maintain their water,” he said. “Most people come to the Extension office getting minerals tested because there’s a smell or a stain. It’s kind of reactionary.”
Hall County Extension runs mineral tests and bacteria tests for well water. Mineral tests are sent to the Athens laboratory and bacteria to Gainesville Public Utilities.
Because of the wide variety of potential contaminants, bacteria tests check for coliform bacteria such as E. coli, Daniels said. These bacteria indicate other contaminants are in the water as well.
“We find more bacteria in the shallower wells because there’s less soil to filter the rainwater,” said David Kissel, academic department head for UGA’s Soil, Plant & Water Lab. “There’s a lot of things that cause contamination. There could be tree roots that have grown into the well casing that allows surface water to enter. Surface water travels over the ground, so there could be animal manure or any number of things to get into the well.”
According to AESL, 30 percent of wells deeper than 100 feet and 60 percent of wells shallower than 100 feet are contaminated.
Wheeler said most Hall County wells average between 150 and 200 feet deep.
For residents whose bacteria tests come back positive, Daniel said a shock chlorination treatment was necessary. After shock chlorinating, the water should be retested, and if it continues to test positive, a more permanent treatment solution — such as ozone or ultraviolet light — could be considered.
“During this process, the well owner should check to make sure the well is free of visible cracks,” she said. “The well should be sealed so nothing can enter it.”
Even while doing maintenance and protecting the wellhead, Wheeler cautioned residents to be aware the potential for cross-contamination is there.
Aside from minerals and bacteria, Daniel said other contaminants found in well water depended on the owner’s circumstances.
“Nitrates can be a concern in an agricultural area with heavy manure application or if the well is on a lot with a poorly installed or maintained septic tank,” she said. “A major focus for our lab right now is uranium. We are finding high uranium levels in wells drilled deeper than 100 feet through the granite bedrock in the Piedmont region.”
The variation of possible contaminants is one reason Wheeler said owners need to test regularly.
“You have to start building a case history for that well,” he said. “Most of the time it’s not going to mean you have to abandon the well and start over.”