Public Health Environmental Laboratories Challenges and Opportunities for Private Well Water Quality

Oral Presentation

Prepared by R. Sealy, R. Sealy
Houston Health Department, 2250 Holcombe Blvd, Houston, TX, 77030, United States


Contact Information: roger.sealy@houstontx.gov; 832-393-3943


ABSTRACT

It is estimated that one in nine Americans drink water from private well sources. Private wells are not regulated for water quality standards, thereby leaving the determination of water quality and mitigation of issues to the discretion of the well owner. Some states have worked to establish testing regulations for the construction of new wells or the transfer of property ownership, but requirements are inconsistent and limited in scope. The lack of testing requirements and enforceable water quality standards leave a portion of the population, primarily in rural communities, potentially vulnerable to harmful contaminants.
We propose two joint presentations to review the unique challenges and opportunities for private well testing in two states, Iowa and Texas, and provide both state and local public health laboratory perspectives.
The first presentation is contributed by the State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa. The presentation will introduce the “Iowa Well Survey” (IWS), a new and sustained statewide effort to reach more private well owners and present them with an opportunity to have their well(s) tested, free of charge. This program is comprised of strong partnerships with local public health departments as well as research components. Well water samples have been tested for standard bacteria (total coliform bacteria and E. coli), nitrate and arsenic parameters. Wells have also been tested for contaminants of emerging concern such as neonicotinoid insecticides, a pesticide group that has been studied for toxicity to pollinators, and safeners, chemicals that help crops (but not weeds) defend themselves against herbicidal damage. The IWS program consolidates testing results from both private laboratories and the state public health lab. The consolidated testing results are reported back to the local health department for a higher level statistical review of the testing results.
The second presentation will be from Houston Health Department, Bureau of Laboratories. The presentation will focus on extreme weathers. Hurricanes, floods, and other extreme weather conditions present enormous challenges to the testing of private wells. The City of Houston, Bureau of Laboratory Services will discuss how experience with previous flood events prepared it for Hurricane Harvey, one of the costliest and wettest tropical cyclones ever recorded. The bureau’s previous planning helped ensure adequate supplies and staffing were available for testing in the aftermath of the catastrophic flood. There were however, some challenges unrelated to testing that were not considered in laboratory preparations. The laboratory will discuss preparedness gaps involving specimen transport and storage as well as an ongoing need for interagency communication when preparing for and responding to flood events.
The joint two presentations will discuss collaboration opportunities between government and private laboratories and preparedness improvement as a better strategy to safeguard public and environmental health. The session will help the audience establish a good understanding of various private well testing programs, issues related to health concerns and potential research opportunities.