MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Recent research found more than 80 percent of Kansas' private wells have problems in construction and/or location. As a result, about 60 percent already are contaminated -- their water does not meet safe drinking water standards -- and about 1 in 5 is an immediate health threat for well users, said Morgan Powell, K-State Research and Extension engineer.
"I'm frustrated. Well users could be doing so much more to protect or improve the safety of their family's water supply. Evidently they're not," Powell said. "The most common contaminants -- in order -- are bacteria, nitrates, and salts (usually sodium chloride). Pesticides and petrochemicals also can occur, but are much less common."
The starting point for water safety always is the same: the well itself (see checklist). Even so, everyday verification of security comes from something else: regular water testing.
"It takes some time. It takes a little money. But testing can tell you when your water needs special treatment," the engineer said. "It will help you know when you need professional help in assessing the well or your well management."
Some Kansans may avoid testing simply because the subject can be confusing. There is no single test for safe drinking water. Some contaminants require more frequent testing than others. Deciding which lab to use can be difficult, too, because price isn't a reliable gauge of quality.
"l'd suggest testing for bacteria fairly frequently -- at least every few months -- to assure water safety. But at least test annually for total and fecal coliform bacteria and nitrate," Powell said. "In addition, test every few years for pH and for basic chemistry -- what a lab may call 'common minerals' or 'drinking water suitability.' That will give you an idea if some outside factor is influencing your water. Labs will offer tests for other contaminants, too. Those tests can be expensive, though, and the contaminants are rarely a problem in Kansas wells."
The main factors in lab selection are (1) quality of service, (2) kinds of tests offered, and (3) lab location.
"The only way to judge the quality of a particular lab's service is through an evaluation done by an independent organization. Fortunately, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment provides this evaluation in Kansas," the engineer said. "KDHE's certification process includes on-site visits, as well as periodic evaluations of a lab's performance testing, personnel training, and recordkeeping."
A list of nearby, currently certified labs is available at Kansas county extension offices. They're also accessible on the Internet websites for K- State Research and Extension (http://www.oznet.ksu.edu) and for KDHE (http://www.ink.org/public/kdhe/science/lipo/khelenvl.txt).
"If two labs are both certified for nitrate and bacteria testing, for example, they'll both be qualified. So, if one offers the service for $20 and the other for $50, you'll know you can use price as one basis for your selection," Powell said.
Also important, however, is the nearness factor.
"Consider only those labs that are within shipping range for overnight delivery by the U.S. Postal Service or another carrier,'' he advised. "When you take a bacteria test sample, you should refrigerate and protect it from sunlight. For accurate results, however, the lab will still need to start testing that sample within 24 hours."
The laboratory will provide the container, as well as instructions for sample taking.
But Kansans also can learn about that and other well safety-related issues by visiting their county Extension office, Powell said. Publications available include:
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