There has been much in the news about water and testing of drinking water ever since the Flint crisis of lead in the drinking water exploded in the news. It is a good idea to have the home inspector that you hire to do the inspection of the home also perform a water test. You can even do one yourself and for $6, if you live in Oakland County and some of the other local Counties. Water test kits are available from the County Health Department.
Lead isn’t the only potentially bad thing that can show up in your water. In fact, if you are buying a home that has a well and a septic system, lead may be the least of your worries.
Many homes and subdivisions that were built in rural area were built on land that had once been farms. Farmers use tons and tons of fertilizer on crops, as well as many pesticides and herbicides to control unwanted bugs and weeds. We don’t think about it too much, but many of those farms also had farm animals, sometimes a lot of them, that may have had an impact on the ground water that we are now using for the new homes. Run off from farm animal waste can seep into the water table over time. Both of those things often resulted in increasing the levels of Nitrates and Nitrites in the water that is now drawn from the wells that service those new subdivisions or homes.
You certainly may be forgiven for not knowing what Nitrites and Nitrates are and how they may harm your health. I didn’t know either, before I got into real estate sales and started dealing with home inspections and water tests for wells. From a Study published by the Water Research Center comes this information about Nitrates/Nitrogen in the groundwater.
The primary health hazard from drinking water with nitrate-nitrogen occurs when nitrate is transformed to nitrite in the digestive system. The nitrite oxidizes the iron in the hemoglobin of the red blood cells to form methemoglobin, which lacks the oxygen-carrying ability of hemoglobin. This creates the condition known as methemoglobinemia (sometimes referred to as "blue baby syndrome"), in which blood lacks the ability to carry sufficient oxygen to the individual body cells causing the veins and skin to appear blue. Note - The health concern is primarily related to potential exposure through consumptions by infants.
Adults can tolerate higher levels of nitrate-nitrogen with little or no documented adverse health effects and may be able to drink water with nitrate-nitrogen concentrations considerably greater than the 10 mg/L level with no acute toxicity effects. However, little is known about possible long-term chronic effects of drinking high nitrate water. If your water test indicates a level of nitrate-nitrogen above 10 mg/L and only adults or older children will be drinking it, consult your family physician for a medical recommendation.
To read the entire report got to - http://www.water-research.net/index.php/nitrate
If you find an unacceptable level of Nitrates/Nitrogen in your well water, you may chose to ignore it, if you don’t have small children or babies; however, you may wish to deal with the problem by installing a system to remove the Nitrate. From the same report comes this advice – Nitrate can be removed from drinking water by three methods: distillation, reverse osmosis, and ion exchange. Home treatment equipment using these processes are available from several manufacturers. Carbon adsorption filters, mechanical filters of various types, and standard water softeners do not remove nitrate-nitrogen. To read more about the methods available to remove Nitrates, go read the full report.
In addition to any potential nitrates/nitrogen issues, the water tests should also test forlead, E.coli and Chloroform. The issues with lead are well documented, so I won’t go over them. Suffice to say that lead in the water is bad.
Arsenic is a poison that occurs naturally in the ground in Michigan and shows up in almost all wells at some level. Arsenic ingestion can result in both chronic (long-term) and acute (short-term) health effects. Acute effects can include nausea, vomiting, neurological effects such as numbness or burning sensations in the hands and feet, cardiovascular effects and decreased production of red and white blood cells which may result in fatigue. Chronic effects include changes in skin coloration and skin thickening and small corn-like growths that can develop especially on the palms of the hand and soles of the feet. Chronic exposure to arsenic is also associated with an increased risk of skin, bladder, and lung cancer. There is also evidence that long-term exposure to arsenic can increase risks for kidney and prostate cancer.
There are filters that may be added to your water system that will remove up to 99% of the arsenic from the water. As a side benefit they also remove several other heavy metals that are not good to ingest in the water either.
E.coli is a bacterium that causes an intestinal infection. We hear about it most often as being caused by contaminated foods, but is may also be in the water system. While it is often caused by animal feces at the surface level, in wells the main cause seems to be infected bugs that get into the well casing, due usually to cracks in the well head cover. The bugs may have picked up the bacteria from animal feces and carried it with them to the inside of the well casing. Once there they die and fall into the water at the bottom of the pipe – the water that the pump into your home. An E.coli infection is pretty nasty and can be life threatening. There are no sure ways to get it out of the water with filters. You could put in a reverse-osmosis system for your drinking and cooking water, but it is much easier and less expensive to just treat the well itself to remove the threat by having the well chlorinated to kill the bacteria and then making sure that a new, secure cap is on the well head.
Chloroform, a simple compound consisting of carbon, chlorine and hydrogen, and is often a byproduct of water chlorination. Chloroform was the “go-to” anesthetic during the American Civil War. Doctors eventually stopped relying on chloroform for surgery and childbirth after it was shown in some cases to cause adverse effects on the heart, liver and/or kidneys and safer anesthetics were developed. Most coliform bacteria will not likely cause illness. However, these bacteria are used as indicators in water tests because their presence indicates that disease-causing organisms (pathogens) could also be in the water. The presence of some types of coliform bacteria in the water signal the presence of feces or sewage waste. Feces and sewage wastes are usually the source of the disease-causing organisms (see the E.coli advice above).
There are many more organic or inorganic things that can show up in well water, some caused by industrial or farming pollution and many that just occur naturally. You can’t see or smell most of these potential health hazards in the water and most are not going to be handled by the normal filters and water softeners that may already be in place. You just won’t know until you get sick, unless you have the water tested.
The bottom line is that you should go ahead and spend the extra money to have the water tested or take the time to get a water test kit from your County Health Department (for $6 in Oakland County, Michigan) and draw some water from the tap in the home that you are buying and turn it in to see what is in your water. In 90% or more of the tests there may be traces of any or all of these potential health treats; however, they rarely show up in concentrations that are dangerous to humans. Some of these hazard have cumulative effect, so they build up over long periods of time. Water is necessary for life; however, water-born chemicals and bacteria can make life miserable, so test the water before you finalize the sale.