Outreach on private well and septic-system maintenance crucial to water quality in ‘underbounded’ communities

December 21, 2018

Many private well owners in areas that have been excluded from municipal water and sewer services are not informed appropriately about the guidelines or importance of routine water testing, according to recent research from faculty members and students at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

The paper, “Barriers to Managing Private Wells and Septic Systems in Underserved Communities: Mental Models of Homeowner Decision Making,” was published in the December issue of the Journal of Environmental Health.

Chelsea Fizer

Chelsea Fizer

Dr. Jackie MacDonald Gibson

Dr. J. MacDonald Gibson

Frank Stillo

Frank Stillo

Lead author of the paper is Chelsea Fizer, MS, a former student in the Gillings School’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering. Fizer was advised by Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, PhD, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School. Frank Stillo, MSPH, a doctoral student and research manager with Gibson’s research group at the Gillings School, also was involved in the study.

Historic zoning practices whereby municipalities intentionally drew boundaries for city and town services around African-American neighborhoods is known as ‘underbounding.’ These communities must rely on private wells and septic systems, even though they neighbor municipal water and sewer lines. Gibson’s prior research found that these communities are exposed disproportionately to water contaminants, compared to nearby areas with municipal water and sewer service. Yet, residents are largely unaware of these risks.

MacDonald Gibson says she learned about these communities from former North Carolina State Health Director Dr. Jeff Engel in 2010.

“I was stunned to learn that these communities were encircled by water and sewer systems but not part of them,” she said. “We haven’t had a lot of data so far on the extent of the problem, but we know the problem has an impact on several hundred thousand people across North Carolina.”

To conduct the study, the team interviewed homeowners in predominantly African-American underbounded communities in North Carolina’s Wake County to gather their perceptions, practices and preferences on maintaining and operating private well and septic systems.

In all 18 interviews, the majority expressed a lack of awareness about what to test for or how often to test. The team found that many mistakenly believed they would be able to sense contamination by taste, smell and sight, or their water must be uncontaminated if they have not gotten sick. Many also lacked information about testing procedures or how to procure services.

MacDonald Gibson says supplying better information about the need to test water quality and how to do so to these communities and to county health departments for dissemination could be a step toward improving water quality in underbounded communities. The team has designed some of these communications and is conducting a trial to see if those materials correct misperceptions about water testing.

“The basis of our research is a Mental Models Approach, which has been successfully applied in other health risk domains, such as preventing STDs, but never applied in this context of encouraging people to test their wells,” MacDonald Gibson said. “Our next step is a population-based survey to see if what we found through interviews affects people’s behavior and how communities can target areas where these messages haven’t been getting through.”


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