Jake King was listening to Spotify last summer when a random commercial about a study looking at the health impacts of drinking water from private wells caught his interest.
Well water safety was already a concern for King and his family, who had recently moved into a Washington Boro farmhouse situated on 7 acres. He immediately contacted the researchers and signed up.
The Kings are one of 25 families across southeast Pennsylvania participating in a pilot version of a Temple University study aimed at learning if drinking private well water can cause illness in young children.
The official study, slated to launch in the spring, is funded by a $3.6 million grant from National Institutes of Health and is expected to last three years. Researchers are looking to recruit 908 families with children under the age of 4 from Lancaster, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Lehigh and Montgomery counties. All families will receive free ultraviolet filtration systems.
“A lot of people think that private well water is fine, but it might just be that we haven’t really looked into it. And there is evidence coming out now that we can find a lot of these waterborne pathogens in groundwater,” said Debbie Lee, one of the study’s researchers. “Ultimately our goal is to find if private well water consumption is a concern for families in Pennsylvania.”
Researchers want to recruit about 25 to 30 homes every month, and although they've rolled out an aggressive recruitment campaign, Lee said it’s been difficult to attract study participants because of COVID-19 constraints.
Half of the families in the study will have working ultraviolet filtration systems installed in their homes and half will have a placebo filter installed. The placebo filters will be replaced by working ultraviolet filtration systems once those families complete the study.
“The deciding factor was that they installed a UV filter for free, which we will then have indefinitely,” King said.
The families will be asked to respond to weekly text message prompts asking if their children presented any symptoms of illness such as diarrhea, cough or a fever.
“The most prevalent health risks from private well drinking water continue to be bacteria related, with regional issues like nitrates and arsenic following that,” Jennifer Fetter, Penn State Extension well water educator, wrote in an email. She is not part of the study.
The study, which focuses on bacteria, viruses and parasite presence in drinking water will be the largest of its kind. Similar studies have been conducted in the United States, Canada and Australia, but none of them concentrated only on private well water systems, and the study groups were not as large, said Heather Murphy, principal investigator and adjunct epidemiology and biostatistics professor at Temple University, who is leading the study.
Pennsylvania has the second largest concentration of private wells in the country behind Michigan, and Lancaster County is home to approximately 40,000 of the state’s over 1 million private drinking water wells.
Coliform bacteria is found in roughly 40% of wells tested in Pennsylvania, according to Fetter.
“In almost all cases, it exists in the well because there is a pathway for surface water/surface contaminants to directly enter the well. In addition to bacteria, many parasites can follow the same pathway and can pose more complicated health risks,” she said.
An LNP | LancasterOnline analysis from 2019 found that water wells are often thought of as less expensive than being on a public water system because homeowners do not receive regular bills for each gallon of water they use. The Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate how private water supplies are constructed and it doesn't mandate monitoring or testing of the water that comes from these sources.
The analysis also found that private water wells are thought to be less expensive than being on a public water system because homeowners do not receive regular bills for each gallon of water they use.