Jim Webb has been drinking the tap water in his Glastonbury home for 15 years. When he first bought the house, he got the water tested, because it comes from a private well.
“It came back perfect,” he said. “The gentleman said, this is equivalent of spring water. So that was great.”
It meant that a testing lab ran the water sample and found it clear of things like pesticides, lead, sulfates and other contaminants. But back then, they didn’t screen for high levels of radon or uranium, a type of metal.
For residents who get their water through a pipe from a utility company, it’s routinely monitored and filtered, but about 23 percent of people in Connecticut get their water from private wells, which are less regulated. The quality of that drinking water has public health officials concerned as new studies find that the prevalence of certain natural elements from the earth may be making it unsafe.
“It’s part of a learning curve,” said Ryan Tatro, of the state Department of Public Health. “We’re learning more about emerging contaminants that may be present in the environment.”
Most residents check the water quality as part of the home inspection process when they buy a house. Newly constructed wells also must be tested, but there’s no state requirement that makes annual testing of well water mandatory, which means homeowners may not do it again for some time.
That’s problematic, because contaminants have been added to the testing schedules over the years — lab scientists today look for traces of man-made chemicals called PFAS and naturally occurring elements like arsenic, radon and uranium.
At high levels, Brian Toll said these substances can pose a threat to human health — even more so to children, pregnant women, immunocompromised people and residents with some pre-existing conditions. As more data is collected, scientists are discovering which residents are more at risk, depending on where they live.
“For most of these contaminants, and uranium and arsenic in particular, it is a long term, chronic theoretical risk,” he said. “With arsenic, we’re primarily concerned about certain types of cancer. Uranium, we’re primarily concerned with potential for kidney disease.”
Toll, supervisor of the environment and occupational health assessment program at the state Department of Public Health, works with Tatro on issues facing Connecticut private well owners. They followed the lead of other New England states, which are investigating drinking water quality.
“We saw that states to the north were focusing on arsenic and uranium, and we know that the bedrock geology in those states are similar to that of Connecticut,” Tatro said.
A joint study between the United States Geological Survey and DPH that came out in 2017 looked at the state’s bedrock and water samples from 674 out of 322,600 privately owned wells.
It found that about 7 percent of well samples had either arsenic or uranium that exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum thresholds for drinking water, which is 10 micrograms per liter for arsenic and 30 micrograms per liter for uranium.
The study connected those wells with high contaminant levels to specific types of bedrock like granite, mafic rock and peletic rock.
One of several towns that fall into one of these bedrock areas is Glastonbury. The municipal health department wanted to make private well owners aware that their water might be contaminated with these natural elements.
Director Wendy Mis said they enlisted help from the state and asked residents this year to voluntarily send in samples of drinking water for testing. They got a response from more than 400 participants.
“The levels of uranium are very different from one well to the next, from neighbor to neighbor,” Mis said. “You may have one well that’s very high and in the next well, seemingly in the same area, drilled into the same bedrock, does not have a high level at all, and that’s why we’re advocating for people to get their wells tested individually, and not rely on what you’re neighbor’s level is.”
As a town resident, Webb got his water tested again, for the second time in 15 years — the results this time around weren’t as positive.
“When I got the test back about the radon and the uranium, the report says, this water is unsuitable for drinking,” he said. “So here I’ve been drinking it for 15 years and the report says this is unsuitable for drinking.”
Mis said most health effects from ingesting something like uranium happen after long-term exposure. The good news, she said, is that most health consequences can be quickly and easily reversed when someone stops drinking the contaminated water.
Webb said he had some concern for the health risks, but he was also worried about what the test results did to the value of his home and any future sale.
“Now that you know there’s a problem in the area, people are going to be aware of it,” he said. “So if they’re going to buy a house here — it’s desirable to live in the town — they’re going to make sure the water is good.”
So for residents with private wells, getting the water tested is only the first step. Deciding what to do with those results can be extremely costly and something that homeowners may struggle to afford.
Webb installed several filtration systems in his home, which involved new equipment in his basement, a dry well dug into his backyard and vent pipes put through the house walls to the outside. His drinking water might be clean now, but it came at a cost of $8,600.
“None of this is cheap,” he said.
There are different ways to treat private well water for things like arsenic, radon and uranium, some at a lower price than others, but it’s still a cost that falls on the homeowner. The recent state studies and water testing have prompted some residents to try and get onto the public water system, but even if that’s possible, the process can take a long time.
Glastonbury health officials said these contamination issues extend beyond the town’s borders and into other areas of the state — they hope other towns may learn from what they did.
The state Department of Health spent about $41,500 this year on an awareness campaign targeted at private well owners. Officials said they plan to put out an updated contamination report soon.
But Connecticut has yet to join its neighbors in the northeast that have established more robust policies aimed at regulating and protecting the quality of private well water.