If the recent water crisis in Flint has brought the issue of lead contamination to the forefront of your mind, you may be wondering whether you're in danger from your own well. Because the dangerously high lead content of Flint's water supply is believed to have been caused by corrosive water from Flint River eating away at the interior of lead-containing pipes (the same types of pipes used to funnel water from water treatment facilities and private wells across the country), this public health crisis has the potential to recur elsewhere if proper precautions aren't taken. Read on to learn more about how to test your well water for lead and what you should do to help minimize the risk that you or your family members will encounter lead-contaminated water from your own private well.
What factors can raise the risk of lead contamination of your well water?
In order for a well to reliably hold water, it must be located in an aquifer -- a permeable layer of water-bearing rock that helps direct fresh water into the open base of the well. The water passing through granite, slate, limestone, and other aquifer stones is usually mineral-rich, and the porous aquifer acts as a natural filter to remove debris or other organic contaminants.
Unless your well is located near a dump, a factory farm that utilizes high-powered fertilizers, or a neighbor who has made a career of collecting broken-down cars that leak fluids into the soil, it's unlikely that many surface contaminants -- including lead -- have made their way into your water supply. However, if your well was constructed at a time when the use of lead pipes was still quite common, you may be at risk of contamination from your own plumbing. (In fact, the modern term "plumbing" was derived from the Latin word "plumbum" for lead, due in large part to lead's popularity as a pipe-making material until the early twentieth century.)
In most cases, lead pipes should pose no problems -- if lead pipes alone caused lead poisoning, nearly every person who grew up with indoor plumbing before the mid-twentieth century should have suffered from this ailment. However, as in Flint, when the water flowing through these pipes contains high levels of corrosive substances, even natural minerals, lead may slowly leach from these pipes into your water supply.
What should you do to test and treat your water for lead?
Even if you're not sure your home's pipes are made from lead, performing a quick water quality test can help ease your mind as to whether your well water has any issues that require correction. As a heavy metal, lead is fairly easily detected in water, and there are a variety of at-home tests you can purchase from home supply stores that promise to determine whether any lead is present in your home's water.
To narrow down the source of any potential lead contamination, you'll want to test the water at several sources -- directly from your well and from an indoor faucet and outdoor spigot at your home, and the well pump. If the water coming from your faucets and spigots tests positive for lead but your well water has low to no lead content, it's usually a safe assumption that your pipes are to blame. On the other hand, if your well water has a high lead level, there may be ground contamination or other factors at play.
In either event, lead remediation can be a pricey prospect. If lead seems to be coming from the pipes between your well and your home's plumbing system, excavation and replacement is usually the best option. For homes with full well contamination, a heavy-duty lead filter and a bit more investigation into the root cause of the lead levels (such as a nearby field littered with car batteries contaminating the groundwater supply) can help you determine the best remediative efforts -- including capping your well and obtaining treated and tested water from a nearby municipal or county supply company.