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Timing is critical when testing well water for bacteria, experts say

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Posted at 11:20 AM, Feb 28, 2023

DURHAM, N.H. — With a suitcase full of test tubes and vials, James Morey is ready to test whether water is safe to drink.

"When we're handling a sample, we have to be careful about what we put our hands on," said More, a water system specialist for Skilling & Sons in New Hampshire.

Morey spends his days meticulously processing the testing well water for homeowners. Some of the samples will be sent to a lab and others he can test on site. Typically, he's looking for things like arsenic, bacteria and radon.

"Arsenic is a great example of that, tasteless and odorless," Morey said.

Experts say the time of year homeowners get their well water tested could dramatically impact the kind of results they see.

"It's really important we keep our water supplies free of contaminants," said Ranjit Bawa, a researcher at the University of New Hampshire.

Bawa and his team recently studied 50,000 wells in North Carolina.Many were located near pig farms. They found that in the summer months, when temperatures were over 90 degrees, bacteria started showing up in well water tests. Bacteria were not present in tests done during the winter.

Bawa says their findings highlight a need for federal regulators to update their guidelines on well water testing.

"Think about testing your well water in the summer months, June or July. And perhaps even test it twice a year," Bawa said.

Private wells are not regulated by the federal government.

The only recommendation by the Environmental Protection Agency right now is to test the water once a year. The agency does not specify when in the year the water should be tested.

According to the United States Geological Survey, an estimated44 million households rely on private wells for drinking water. The highest concentration of those wells is on the East Coast.

In the last few weeks, the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, has brought renewed attention to well water testing.

Bawa and Morey are not experts on what happened there. But both say disasters like hurricanes or toxic spills, no matter where they happen in the country, often push homeowners nationwide to test their water.

"Any kind of exposure to these issues— there’s a lot of things in people’s systems, if compromised, [that] can introduce bacteria," Morey said.