For people on private wells, race and income often determine whether water is safe to drink
UNC-Chapel Hill, community groups sampled wells in Robeson, Northampton, Chatham, New Hanover counties
Roughly 2.4 million North Carolinians rely on private wells for their drinking water. But unlike public water systems, private wells are not regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
Instead of a utility being responsible for ensuring the drinking water is free of contaminants, residents on private wells are the stewards of their own safety.
But the ability to test and treat private drinking water varies widely by race/ethnicity and income, according to a scientific study released this week. UNC-Chapel Hill, Virginia Tech and Northeastern University, along with several community and tribal groups and county health departments also collaborated on the research.
The research focused on four regions in North Carolina affected by Hurricanes Florence and Michael, which occurred in 2018: Robeson, Northampton, Chatham and New Hanover counties. These counties are also home to Duke Energy coal ash impoundments, which historically were unlined.
Residents of nine bordering counties also allowed their wells to be tested.
Researchers sampled for a dozen contaminants, including arsenic, nitrate, lead, Chromium 6 and cobalt.
- Two-thirds of 476 drinking water wells tested in North Carolina had at least one contaminant exceeding a federal or state standard for drinking water or groundwater, or a public health goal
- A smaller group of 79 wells exceeded at least two of those standards or goals
- 17 wells had at least three exceedances
In 72 cases, the wells were contaminated to the extent that if they had been tested by a county health department, the agencies would have been required to mail a Health Risk Evaluation recommending well users “do not drink” the water. However, federal and state law don’t require any action beyond warning households against consuming the contaminated water.
More recently drilled wells are less vulnerable than those installed before 2008. That’s when a state law went into effect requiring new wells to be tested; however, that’s law doesn’t apply to wells drilled or dug before that time.
White, high-income households were 10 times more likely to have tested their wells than those of people of color or low-income. A similar pattern held for treating their water: The odds of having some form of water treatment was four times greater for white, high-income households than their non-white and low-income counterparts.
Although high contamination levels were equally distributed among the sampled wells, people of color and low-income household bore an unequal burden in exposure to the toxic contaminants. That is because they often lack the resources to test and treat their drinking water, the study authors conclude.
Dug wells were more vulnerable to contamination than drilled wells — which are more expensive to install. Forty percent of dug wells belonged to low-income, non-white households; whereas high-income, white households reported only 23% of dug wells.
“Despite the fact that there’s a lot of contamination out there, there are differences in awareness and how people respond,” said Andrew George, one of the researchers. “Unfortunately, those who are least capable of addressing the problem may be the most unaware.”
NC Newsline spoke with George and fellow researcher Kathleen Gray about the significance of the findings.
George is the Community Engagement Coordinator at UNC’s Institute for the Environment. Gray is the director of the Center for Public Engagement with Science and a research associate professor, also at the Institute. You can read the paper and see full list of researchers and community partners at this link.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NC Newsline: Because communities of color have historically been marginalized and even exploited, there is a lot of distrust of government and even academia. We’re seeing that in Durham because of the city’s and Duke University’s lack of transparency about lead contamination in several parks. What trust issues did you encounter and how did you overcome them?
George: We follow community engagement research strategies very, very closely. Part of that is bringing the community into the study before it gets moving so that they can have a sense of what’s happening. There’s a theory called procedural justice that says that if people are involved in the process, even though they might not like the outcome, they at least understand the process and are willing to think about next steps.
And so by bringing in the community, we’re trying to build in their questions into study. Through community-based science, we bring them directly into the study, in collecting samples, so that they’re more likely to accept the outcomes.
That early conversation is one of the best ways to build a trust. And by sticking to the science. We can’t do it without the community-based organizations.
Gray: I’d like to add that in Union County, [which lies in the state’s ‘Slate Belt’ and has naturally occurring arsenic] the health department was a partner. They knew where there were at-risk communities, socially and economically. So we use the term ‘community,’ and that includes nonprofit organizations with a social justice mission, grassroots environmental advocates and health departments.
NC Newsline: Communicating risk is difficult. You have to explain to people what the potential health impacts could be; yet just because you’re exposed to a contaminant doesn’t mean you’re going to get sick. With that in mind, how do you communicate the risk and the impacts of these findings?
Gray: There’s uncertainty in the science that makes communicating about risk difficult. How secure are we about these levels? And is what’s in one set of wells representative of what’s in other wells? And even if it is, how sure are we about the health effects caused by these particular contaminants and at the level? There’s also variability in individuals, in our risk perception and our risk tolerance.
What we find we have to do is communicate in ways that highlight some of that uncertainty and variability harm. But that can difficult for people receiving the test results. They ask, ‘Where the contaminants are coming from? Why don’t we know the source? And then what can we do about it? Why isn’t there an answer? How can I get it out of my water out of my body?’
This is one of the reasons we partner with community-based organizations. Because when people are invited into conversations about the science and about the implications of the science, we have a more robust conversation. We can better understand the questions. And if we can’t answer them, we can say what we know, what we don’t know, and here are reasonable steps to take.
NC Newsline: Were you able to pinpoint any of the contamination sources? For example, we know coal ash [from Duke’s Cape Fear plant in Moncure] was in Chatham County.
George: I think it’s fair to say that there are potential contaminating sources near a lot of these wells. But it was very difficult to figure out in the timeframe of the study. We tried to go straight to the most important question, which is ‘How do we prevent and reduce the contamination to the community?’ Sometimes we can answer that question. Or we might not ever know the source.
We were open to that question. But that’s not the primary focus of what we’re really trying to do. We’re trying to figure out if their wells are contaminated, and if they are, can we provide some kind of short-term solutions.
NC Newsline: The problem of water contamination is disproportionate, but so are the solutions. If you’re in a low-wealth community — even if a public water line runs in front of your house, you may not be able to tie into it. That costs a lot of money. Same with treatment systems. How do we protect people when they don’t have the resources of a higher wealth community?
George: We try to provide a short-term solution that works. And that’s these pitcher filters we’ve tested in the lab. They work really well, they’re easy to maintain, they’re affordable. When we tested wells in Union County and found a number of them high for arsenic, we called the residents right away and Rebecca Fry’s lab at UNC had a filter sent to them within 12 to 24 hours.
The problem, though, is that’s not a permanent, long-term solution. Public water lines are a big opportunity, because there is lot of federal funding. But that has drawbacks, namely that it’s very difficult to actually have this happen. And there are other structural inequities that prevent it happening in some communities. Permanent solutions are really important, and a problem that we all have to get our minds around.
Gray: This problem is not just in North Carolina. In the Northeast, they also have a lot of naturally occurring arsenic and are grappling with the same issues. And of course, private wells aren’t regulated in most of the country.
The well owner is responsible for their water. The next question is ‘Should that be what happens?’ Some people, understandably, really wanted to be able to say, ‘There’s someone at fault here. Who’s gonna fix this problem and make me safe?’ There are challenges if you get your drinking water from a private well to being able to answer those questions. This is a national conversation about what we do for people who rely on wells for their drinking water — and there are no protections.
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