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Environment, Climate and HealthMechanisms for Advancing Health Equity

Well Water Quality Concerns Call for Increased Testing

March 20, 2024


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in five private wells contain unhealthy levels of contaminants. Concerns over contaminated well water have only intensified given the impact on water quality from the increasing number of natural disasters due to climate change. The current state of private well water quality calls for law and policy interventions, particularly the implementation of laws governing water quality testing for private wells.

Since I last wrote about private wells and drinking water quality in 2019 a lot has happened, including a global pandemic. However, the lack of legal oversight over water quality in private wells continues. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about 1 in 5 private wells contain unhealthy levels of contaminants. As natural disasters caused by climate change are on the rise, the one in eight Americans that rely on private wells for drinking water should be aware of the potential health risks that flooding, storms, and wildfires pose for their drinking water. State laws that require water quality sampling of private wells can help promote drinking water safety before, during, and after a storm event.

The current state of private well water quality calls for law and policy interventions, particularly the implementation of laws governing water quality testing for private wells. The Network is researching the scope and extent of current state laws requiring water quality sampling of private wells and how that water quality data is used in terms of notifying those who might be impacted, like renters for example. While a full report on our findings is forthcoming, here are some of the key findings so far.

For those in communities impacted by wildfires or floods, safety concerns can be overwhelming due to concerns about contamination of and damage to private wells. Many states offer free well testing after a fire or flood, like the Oregon voucher program providing free water quality testing for households impacted by the Labor Day fires of 2020, or North Carolina’s efforts to test wells following Hurricane Florence, which flooded hog lagoons and left private wells at risk of contamination.

While these types of programs are useful in terms of emergency response, as are programs to help provide clean drinking water or replace damaged or contaminated wells following natural disasters, there is a need for comprehensive, ongoing programs that examine the drinking water of private well owners and potential health impacts before, during, and after disaster hits, as well as when there is no specific disaster event. The data collected could lay the foundations for stronger protections from well contamination.

Data on the state of private wells and sources of potential groundwater contamination that may impact private wells is needed to implement effective law and policy interventions. But many states lack a comprehensive program requiring private well testing. Some states have developed programs that authorize testing for private wells in the vicinity of a potential pollution source, like a Virginia law that requires the utility to pay for a well water test on behalf of private well owners who are located within 1.5 miles of a coal ash plant once before July 2021, and then once per year for five years following closure of a coal ash pond, and once every five years thereafter.

Another example is a Connecticut law allowing the local director of health to test private wells for pesticides, herbicides, or organic chemicals in areas where nitrate-nitrogen (a contaminant that can lead to low blood oxygen levels and is associated with certain cancers, birth defects, and thyroid disease) in groundwater exceeds 10 mg/L or the well is located on or in proximity to land “associated with the past or present production, storage, use or disposal of organic chemicals.”

When water testing for private wells does take place, it is usually when a new well is built or a property changes ownership. It is common for a state to require water quality testing for a new well, but fewer states require water quality sampling of private wells as a condition of sale. Some states require water quality testing results to be made public, others make these results private or require a public compilation of the data by region without identifying the actual site of the tested well. Where the state law is silent about the privacy of this data, a state’s freedom of information act may provide guidance.

In addition to the potential health risks that private well owners may be exposed to because of a lack of well water testing, renters may be at risk as well. Very few states require landlords to sample the water quality of private wells and provide that data to tenants. However, some do. For example, a new Maryland state law that will go into effect later this year requires owners of residential rental properties to test water quality in private wells every three years and provide those results to tenants. Where well water does not meet drinking water standards or harmful levels of a contaminant are found, the landlord must either provide an ongoing supply of clean water, remediate the contamination, or provide the tenant with an option to cancel their lease. Some states provide for testing but limit these programs by region or pollutant, for example Maine requires residential landlords to test only for arsenic every five years and provide those results to tenants.

While some limited progress has been made in adopting comprehensive private well testing laws and policies, there is still much work to be done. As states or localities consider adopting private well protection statutes, they should consider who should be required to sample their well for water quality; what triggers this sampling; privacy, or disclosure of the data; how to notify affected parties of contamination; and whether to incorporate a remediation program. The data that will be collected because of these efforts will enable states to track changes in groundwater quality and provide much needed attention to the quality, and potential health risks, of water in private wells.

This article was written by Betsy Lawton, J.D., Deputy Director, Climate and Health, Network for Public Health Law.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document do not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not represent the views of (and should not be attributed to) RWJF.