Projects to test water for lead, other impurities in underserved Pa. counties

Private water supplies in nine Pennsylvania counties underserved by water-quality educational programs and water testing will be the focus of two new Penn State Extension projects aimed at helping well owners detect and remediate lead and other common contaminants.

Despite the highly publicized lead contamination in the municipal water supply serving Flint, Michigan, the vast majority of public water systems meet federal safe drinking water standards. However, the same cannot be said for private supplies -- such as wells, springs and cisterns -- in Pennsylvania, according to Bryan Swistock, water resources extension specialist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"More than 3 million Pennsylvanians rely on about 1 million private wells for their drinking water, yet the state is one of only a few that does not mandate minimum well-construction and maintenance standards," he said. "In addition, our research has shown that more than 40 percent of these wells fail to meet at least one health-based drinking-water standard."

Swistock noted that private water supply owners are solely responsible for the quality of their drinking water. "The absence of statewide regulations -- along with significant contamination rates and low awareness among private water supply owners -- creates a critical need for education, technical assistance and testing services for these residents."

The two projects combined, funded by grants from the Pennsylvania Water Resources Research Center based at Penn State and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will provide free water testing for 380 homes and farms in nine counties: Elk, Erie, Fayette, Forest, Greene, Jefferson, Montour, Northampton and Venango.

The test results will add to a Penn State Extension database that helps Swistock and colleagues track the extent of contamination in private water supplies across the state.

"The Penn State Extension Water Resources Team and more than 200 Master Well Owner Network volunteers annually educate about 10,000 private water supply owners through workshops, individual consultations and webinars," Swistock said. "These educational efforts have resulted in the analysis of nearly 7,000 groundwater samples. Summaries of these data are publicly available and are used by extension educators, water professionals, realtors and others to guide local water testing recommendations and to direct future research.

"The data also are incorporated into the free H2OSolutions mobile app that has been downloaded by nearly 500 professionals," he said. "Despite all of these efforts, there are several underserved counties that have been difficult to reach with private water supply education because of the limited number and geographic location of extension team members and volunteers."

Swistock noted that many of these counties also lack any state-accredited water testing laboratories. "These counties have more than 100,000 homes using private water supplies but very few groundwater samples in the Penn State database, resulting in less comprehensive groundwater quality information for those counties."

The projects also will provide opportunities for local residents to learn how to manage their private water supplies, to receive detailed interpretations of their test results and to get recommendations for mitigating any contamination issues found.

The recent water crisis in Flint has created new awareness of the issues related to lead, and that contaminant will be one focus of the new projects, according to Swistock. He pointed out that lead poses the biggest threat to children, potentially causing serious brain damage, loss of I.Q., learning disabilities and other problems. Lead also can cause stroke, heart attack, hearing loss and kidney and liver damage in adults.

Lead leaches into drinking water primarily from plumbing systems, usually from leaded solder at pipe joints or brass fittings and fixtures, he explained. Corrosive water adds to the problem.

"Corrosive water generally is acidic water that is also soft," Swistock said. "Hard water contains minerals that actually coat the inside surface of pipes and help keep lead from dissolving, but soft and acidic water dissolves lead and results in contamination of tap water."

Although Pennsylvania law now bans leaded solder, pipes and fixtures in new construction, Swistock said testing water for lead is a good idea, especially in older homes or areas where corrosive water is prevalent. If tests indicate the presence of lead at unacceptable levels, precautions should be taken.

"Lead is one of the most serious health-related problems in private water systems in the state," Swistock said, "and through these projects, we hope to shed light on the frequency and causes of lead and other contaminants in the water systems of participating homes."

To learn more about maintaining and testing private water supplies, visit the Penn State Extension Water Quality website. The website also features more information about lead in drinking water.

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Last Updated May 18, 2016