Bacteria in private wells associated with visits to emergency

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Posted on June 24, 2016

emergencyDigestive upset, stomach cramps, diarrhea. Maybe it’s over just as quickly as it started or maybe you end up at the emergency department. Clinically, this is called acute gastrointestinal illness (AGI) and is caused by bacteria like E. coli and other microorganisms. Typically when this happens to you, your first thought is likely “must have been something I ate” not “must have been something I drank”.  The exception being if you happened to be on vacation, in say, Mexico at the time! But a new study has shown that contracting AGI from drinking water at home may be more common than we think. 

Private wells associated 29,400 trips to emergency in North Carolina alone


Children and the elderly are at greater risk of dehydration from diarrhea - a common symptom of illness caused by waterborne bacteria.

The study, co-authored by one researcher from Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and two from UNC Gillings School of Public Health, estimated that roughly 1 in 14 (7%) emergency visits in North Carolina for AGI were associated with from microbial contamination of water. And nearly every one of those cases (99%) was associated with the contamination of private wells!

The researchers compiled six years of data (2007-2013) from across the state and estimated the annual state-wide cost of emergency department visits attributable to microbial contamination of private wells to be $39.9 million. In North Carolina, over 900,000 households (35%) use private wells, and well test results revealed that over 36% of wells were positive for the presence of coliforms. It’s easy to be unconcerned about water quality or even to dismiss a positive coliform test thinking that coliforms are only indicator bacteria. But remember, coliforms indicate that disease-causing bacteria can get into your water supply. Clearly, this was the case with over 29,000 hospital visits and an unknown number of milder cases over these six years. Roughly 15% of households in the US get water from a private source and are exposed to similar risks. 

Whole-home water treatment can provide insurance

The study’s purpose was to examine the possibility of easing the stress on health care by extending public water systems, where possible.  But, realistically, it will take a lot of time and money.  In the meantime, private well owners everywhere should be testing their water and making sure their well is in good shape.  And for those looking for total peace of mind where their family's water quality is concerned, installing a whole home UV disinfection system is also be highly recommended. 

If you have any concerns about your water quality, talk to a certified water treatment specialist in your area.