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Coliform Bacteria in Well Water

Coliform bacteria in drinking water is not typically a concern of many home owners.  This is primarily due to the fact that there are controls in place to eliminate and prevent contamination in the municipal water supply and a overarching sense that well water is inherently clean and safe.  Why would there be a need to worry?  A future article will discuss potential bacteria contamination risks associated with municipal water, however I'd like to discuss the issue of coliform bacteria in one's well water.  Home owners may be surprised to learn that well contamination is a risk that most homes are exposed to at all times.  Fortunately If one suspects contamination, there are simple steps that can be followed to determine the source and protect themselves from future health risks

Where does Coliform Bacteria Originate?

Coliform bacteria originates as organisms in soil or vegetation and in the intestinal tract of warm-blooded animals (fecal coli).  The coliform bacteria are relatively simple to identify, are present in much larger numbers than the more dangerous pathogens, and react to the natural environment and treatment processes in a manner and degree similar to pathogens.  Fecal coliform and E-coli are bacteria whose presence indicates that a well may be contaminated with human or animal wastes from septic systems, water table influences, or surface water seepage caused by runoff from woodlands, pasture, or feedlots.

What's the Risk?

As many of you know, bacteria cannot be seen, tasted or smelled and the many health-related symptoms are not immediately recognizable.  In addition, since the strength of an individuals immune system plays a significant role in determining whether or not a person becomes ill, different family members may have different reactions to the same level of contamination.  Coliform bacteria are an indication that more serious disease causing bacteria and pathogens may be present in your well water.  Pathogens are the bacteria, viruses and protozoa that are known to make a person sick and should be the foremost concern for the home owner. Since some strains of coliform such as e-coli are pathogens, these wastes can cause short-term effects, such as diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, but also have the potential to make a person seriously ill.

How Do I Know If My Well Water Is Contaminated?

The human body adjusts and balances the digestive tract bacteria makeup to compensate for soil and vegetation coliform bacteria found in drinking water.  But, since you have most likely already bacteria-adjusted to your own well water, and you and/or members of your family have gotten sick and suspect the well, then this is most likely an indication of a more serious bacteria contamination risk.  Homeowners using well water are not required to test for bacteria, but the EPA and most states recommend that you test your water at least once a year. If you do not suspect immediate contamination, then the late spring or early summer are the best times for testing as coliform contamination is most likely to show up during wet weather.  A homeowner should contact their state department of public health for locating the closest testing facility as fees are usually nominal.

How do I Protect Myself?

Biological contaminants such as coliform bacteria are most effectively eliminated through chlorine disinfection, filtration, ultraviolet irradiation, and ozonation. A disinfectant should be effective on many types of pathogens regardless of their quantity and it should be able to kill all pathogens within a reasonable retention time. However, some homeowners shy away from disinfectants like chlorine as they ultimately are ingested.  A popular approach is the utilization of water filtration systems.  This can be accomplished with either a whole home filtration system, an under the sink solution, or a counter top system like the Big Berkey Water Filter.  One of the advantages to this choice is that even if testing is not occurring at recommended intervals, a water filter system will act a firewall to protect the drinkers of the water.

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