CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — Sitting in an enclosed porch outside of town, Sandy Davis holds up her hand. It’s gnarled and shaking.
She blames it on drinking well water for about 25 years that was heavily laced with arsenic, a highly toxic element that’s naturally occurring in Iowa, The Des Moines Register (http://dmreg.co/2cfg7IG ) reports.
Sandy and her husband, Jack, had no idea their water wasn’t safe to drink. Many Iowans probably don’t, officials say.
With nearly 300,000 Iowans who rely on private wells, “there could be thousands of people across the state who are in the same boat and don’t even know it,” said Brian Hanft, environmental services manager at Cerro Gordo Health Department.
Unlike public drinking water systems in cities and towns, no state or federal law requires existing private wells to be tested for contaminants such as nitrates, bacteria and arsenic. And few Iowans test their wells.
Public health data show that about 6,000 or fewer Iowans get their wells tested annually for nitrates and bacteria. And only about 1,000 Iowans have requested tests for arsenic.
“People don’t know what they’re drinking in their water,” said the 72-year-old Sandy Davis.
Iowans with private wells have reason to worry, based on a University of Iowa study from 2006 to 2008 that tested 475 private wells in 93 counties. The unsettling results showed:
Forty-nine percent tested positive for nitrates, with 12 percent at levels the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers unsafe.
Forty-eight percent had arsenic, with 8 percent at levels unsafe for drinking.
And 43 percent tested positive for total coliform bacteria, with 11 percent positive for E. coli and 19 percent, enterococci. Those bacteria can make people extremely sick.
Moreover, a decade of recent data from Iowans who voluntarily tested their wells indicate little improvement.
Data collected from 2006 to 2015 showed that 34 percent of total coliform bacteria tests reported positive results; nearly 7 percent of fecal coliform tests were positive; and 15 percent of nitrate tests exceeded federal standards, Iowa Department of Public Health data show.
In addition, arsenic tests over the past three years showed 36 percent of private wells had levels exceeding safety standards, with most of the tests taken in Cerro Gordo County.
The Davises didn’t learn their water was unsafe until neighbors tested their water. That’s why they believe Iowa lawmakers should require homes with private wells to be tested, at the very least, when a property is sold.
Democratic state Sen. Joe Bolkcom agrees: “People should know what’s in their water, especially when they’re buying a home. They should be confident their water is safe.”
Worries over Iowa’s water quality have ramped up in recent years.
They came to a head last year, when Des Moines Water Works sued over high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River, a source of drinking water for 500,000 central Iowa residents.
The lawsuit prompted lawmakers to look for money to help fund conservation practices that can reduce nutrient leaching from farms upstream. The effort sputtered last session but is expected to be revived next year.
State health officials are growing more concerned about arsenic and other contaminants as well.
The UI study showed arsenic is present in every major Iowa aquifer. Officials had thought it was a problem primarily in north central Iowa, the area where the Davises live.
“We found high arsenic in 31 different counties across the state,” said Peter Weyer, interim director of the UI’s Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination.
That “was an eye opener for us in the public health arena,” he said. “Arsenic is absolutely a bad actor.”
Despite those concerns, Iowa has no authority to require testing of existing wells for arsenic, nitrates or bacteria.
“If we had a rule that required every well to be tested to prove it’s safe, we would find there would be some pushback, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense,” said Russell Tell, a senior environmental specialist at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
“Not everyone wants to be told they can’t drink their water,” especially if they can’t afford to fix the problem, he said.
Tell said some lawmakers tried to require that private wells be tested when homes were sold, along with legislation that now requires septic systems be inspected to ensure they work properly.
The private well testing effort failed. The difference, Tell said, is there’s no state or federal law requiring that water from private wells be safe for drinking.
“But there is a law that says if there’s a dwelling on the property, it has to have a conforming septic system” to protect groundwater, he said.
The state does require new — or reconstructed — wells to be tested, Tell said.
The state tries to ensure good drinking water in unincorporated areas through strong well construction standards, he said.
Iowa has seen some improvements in its wells over nearly 20 years.
The UI study also revisited 116 wells that were tested in 1988-89. It showed 11 percent fewer wells had nitrates detected, and 6 percent fewer wells had nitrates that exceeded federal standards. The study said positive tests for total coliform bacteria were comparable, inching up 3 percent.
Jack Davis, now 87, said he’s never seen someone “walk away” from making more money. But when Davis asked the man digging his well in the late 1970s if he should drill deeper than about 100 feet, he was told, “‘That’s deep enough. You have good water,'” he said.
The Davises discovered more than two decades later that the arsenic levels in their well were as high as 140 parts per billion, nearly three times the federal limit of 50 parts per billion for public drinking water systems. Acceptable maximum levels have since dropped to 10 parts per billion.
The EPA said long-term exposure to high arsenic levels could be associated with problems that range from skin discoloration to stomach pain, nausea and vomiting to neurological and cardiovascular problems and possible cancers.
The agency advises the goal for arsenic levels in public drinking water systems to be zero.
Sandy Davis, who had been drinking eight, 13-ounce glasses of water daily for her health, said tests taken in the early 2000s showed she had arsenic poisoning. Already experiencing tremors, she immediately stopped drinking the well water, and the couple had a new, deeper well dug — this time to a depth of nearly 330 feet.
Sandy Davis said she was quickly able to drop her arsenic levels to safer levels. But her family still worries about possible health problems.
Martha Alexander, the Davises’ daughter, said her mother has experienced health problems, in addition to the tremors and worsening arthritis. For example, she’s had balance issues — she tumbled from a ladder that resulted in having back surgery — that could have come from long-term arsenic exposure.
“You’ll never know the damage 25 years of drinking that much arsenic is going to do,” Alexander said.
The University of Iowa’s work, along with a study from Cerro Gordo County Public Health, led the state’s Grants to Counties program to include arsenic testing, along with bacteria and nitrates.
The program provided $26,530 this fiscal year to 98 counties each to test drinking water at no cost to homeowners; help rehabilitate wells (sometimes fixes are as easy as “shock chlorinating” a well to kill bacteria); or plug a well that’s unsafe.
High arsenic and nitrate levels also can be addressed with in-home water treatment systems, although some homeowners might choose to dig a new well.
The Cerro Gordo study, which partnered with UI’s Weyer and others, found arsenic levels as high as 200 parts per billion.
“We’ve got arsenic problems statewide. It just so happens that Cerro Gordo has the highest recorded arsenic concentration in Iowa,” said Hanft, the Cerro Gordo environmental services manager.
A small public water system in the county, now closed, found arsenic levels at 540 parts per billion — more than 50 times higher than acceptable limits.
Based on global epidemiological studies, chronic health impacts typically occur at arsenic levels around 170 parts per billion with long-term exposure, said Stuart Schmitz, the Iowa Department of Public Health’s toxicologist. And neurological damage often is seen at higher levels.
The Cerro Gordo study showed companies drilling wells need to dig deep to avoid the Lime Creek formation that’s more likely to contain arsenic. The county passed regulations that require companies to meet new casing requirements when drilling. And new wells must be tested for arsenic.
Alanna Davison, a former Cerro Gordo County health department spokeswoman, was with a co-worker taking water tests in 2011 and decided to swing by her family’s farm to analyze her water.
Davison, a couple of months pregnant with her first child, said she was frightened when she heard the farm’s well had arsenic levels of about 30 parts per billion.
“I went directly into panic mode,” said Davison, who called her doctor and switched to bottled water. The couple quickly fixed a broken reverse-osmosis filtering system that came with the house they recently purchased.
“I grew up on city water and would have never thought about getting the water tested,” she said, adding that her daughter, now 5, is “perfectly fine.”
Davison and her husband, Jordan, both 30, now also have a 2½-year-old and an 8-month-old.
“It’s important we know what we’re giving our kids,” Davison said. “I’m glad we’re not finding this out 20 years from now.”
Schmitz said the state has had only a few reports of arsenic poisoning in recent years, mostly connected to food.
Weyer, who leads UI’s Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, said more study is needed on the health effects of contaminants in Iowa’s drinking water.
With arsenic, “if you’re exposed to low levels over long periods of times, there may be adverse effects,” Weyer said. “There may be some cardiovascular effects. There may be some immune system responses.”
His department, for example, is looking at possible health effects of long-term exposure to low levels of nitrates in Iowa’s drinking water. His studies show nitrates at half the federal standard with exposures 20 years or longer could be associated with some cancers.
Other studies, however, show no connections, he said.
EPA requires that nitrate levels in public water systems not be higher than 10 parts per million. Infants who drink water too high in nitrates can become seriously ill and even die without treatment.
Weyer said there’s a debate about the appropriate federal maximum contaminant level for nitrates.
“One camp says we should raise it to 15 or 20 parts per million because we haven’t seen a case of blue-baby syndrome in years,” Weyer said. “Then you have the cancer researchers saying we’re seeing problems maybe at 5. I’d say it’s probably a safe bet at 10.”
Weyer acknowledged that conflicting studies can cause confusion. But he’s confident that Iowa’s public water systems are safe, given strict testing requirements.
For example, Des Moines Water Works tests for bacteria 150 times a month, the Iowa DNR says.
As for private wells, unless owners have had them tested, “we consider them to be a question mark,” Weyer said.
Getting your private well tested is as easy as calling your county sanitarian, who will set up an appointment and take a water sample from your tap. You’ll get the results in the mail a few days later.
Testing is free. The state recommends nitrate and bacteria tests be done annually. Arsenic testing should be done at least once.
The county sanitarian will walk through options if you have troubling levels of nitrates, bacteria or arsenic. The state’s Grants to Counties program may provide money toward remediation options, such as “shock chlorination” to eliminate bacteria.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources requires bacteria and nitrate tests for new wells, but there’s no testing requirements for existing wells.
Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com
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