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Well Water May Pose Serious Dangers to Children

Private well water should be tested yearly, and in some cases more
often, according to new guidance offered by the American Academy of
Pediatrics (AAP). Researchers at the National Institute of
Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes
of Health, took a lead role in working with the AAP to develop these
recommendations and draft a new AAP policy statement about the things
parents should do if their children drink well water. The
recommendations call for annual well testing, especially for nitrate
and microorganisms such as coliform bacteria, which can indicate that
sewage has contaminated the well. The recommendations point out
circumstances when additional testing should occur, including testing
when there is a new infant in the house or if the well is subjected to
structural damage.

"Children are especially vulnerable to waterborne illnesses that may
come from contaminated wells," said Walter J. Rogan, M.D., an
epidemiologist at NIEHS and lead author on the policy statement and
technical report that appears in the June issue of Pediatrics. The new
policy statement, "Drinking Water from Private Wells and Risks to
Children," offers recommendations for inspection, testing and
remediation of wells providing drinking water for children.

"With few exceptions, well owners are responsible for their own
wells," said Rogan. Private wells are not subject to federal
regulations and are only minimally regulated by states. With proper
care, well water is safe; however, wells can become contaminated by
chemicals or pathogenic organisms.

Nitrate, which comes from sewage or fertilizer, is the most common contaminant
in wells. The presence of nitrates can be a problem particularly for infants
under three months who can not metabolize nitrate. Water with a nitrate concentration
of more than 10 milligrams per liter should not be used to prepare infant formula
or given to a child younger than one year. The policy statement suggests using
bottled water for infants when nitrate contamination is detected, or when the
source of drinking water is not known.

The policy statement and accompanying technical report point out
that water contamination is inherently local, and that families with
wells need to keep in contact with state and local health experts to
determine what should be tested in their community. For example, some
parts of the country may have arsenic, radon, salt intrusion or
agricultural runoff that may get into the water supply.

"As people move out of urban and suburban areas into areas that are
not reached by municipal water supplies, it is more important than ever
that people know who to contact in their local health department to get
information about local groundwater conditions," said N. Beth Ragan of
NIEHS, who served as consultant on these reports. A compilation of
state by state telephone and Web-based resources of local experts is
included in the technical report. Approximately one-sixth of U.S.
households now get their drinking water from private wells.

NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., says she is pleased that NIEHS
researchers took the lead in writing this statement, and continue their
longstanding liaisons with the American Academy of Pediatrics to
develop state-of-the-science technical reports that can have a direct
impact on public health.

"This statement will be extremely useful to many audiences —
especially pediatricians," Birnbaum said. "Pediatricians needed a
one-stop shopping document that they can share with parents who have
concerns about their children’s sources of drinking water."

The NIEHS supports research to understand the effects of the
environment on human health and is part of NIH. For more information on
environmental health topics, visit our Web site at


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