July 13, 2017

A new paper, published July 8 in Environmental Health Perspectives, offers recommendations that could improve the health of North Carolinians who rely on private drinking-water wells.

Dr. Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson

Dr. Jackie MacDonald Gibson

The paper, whose lead author is Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, PhD, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, summarizes recommendations made by the Research Triangle (N.C.) Environmental Health Collaborative at a two-day summit in October 2015.

At that time, invited participants including public health practitioners, academic scientists, community-based organizations, policy makers and others proposed 10 high-priority recommendations to address critical challenges to private well-water quality in North Carolina.

About 44.5 million U.S. residents draw drinking water from private wells, which leaves them at higher risk of being exposed to waterborne contaminants than are residents served by regulated municipal water systems. North Carolina is second only to Pennsylvania in the number of people who drink from private wells – about 3.3 million.

MacDonald Gibson’s previous research found that 99 percent of emergency-department hospital visits for acute gastrointestinal illness associated with exposure to waterborne microbial contaminants was attributable to contaminated private wells. North Carolina therefore serves as a fitting microcosm of the national problem.

Participants in the “Safe Water from Every Tap” summit focused on four critical challenges:

  • The lack of databases showing which households use private wells, thereby limiting or prohibiting communication, technical assistance and other interventions for those at-risk households;
  • Racial discrimination related to where municipal service lines are drawn;
  • Lack of knowledge and resources for well owners to monitor and maintain well safety; and
  • Fragmented, undersupported programs for protecting well-water quality and supporting homeowners in managing their wells.

Summit participants made these 10 recommendations:

  • Collect and coordinate data about the locations of wells.
  • Authorize and fund a study to identify underserved areas.
  • Fund a statewide analysis of the costs of municipal service to the underserved, and prioritize areas most in need of services.
  • Develop marketing campaigns to promote well testing and maintenance.
  • Analyze options for providing financial assistance to low-income well users to offset costs of well monitoring and maintenance.
  • Promote development of affordable well contract maintenance services, in which private users pay subscriptions for regular testing and maintenance.
  • Build interactive mapping tool to be used by well owners and health departments to identify wells at risk of contamination.
  • Update and upgrade existing Division of Public Health websites to help homeowners find state-accredited water testing labs.
  • Create a statewide network of professionals to provide information and training on issues related to private wells.
  • Commission a study of the adequacy of existing private well regulations and programs.

“Many Americans take for granted that their kitchen faucets will deliver clean water to drink, but people getting their water from unregulated private wells do not have that luxury,” MacDonald Gibson said. “We hope that state and federal regulations will adopt some of our recommendations to help improve the safety of drinking water from unregulated wells.”

The paper’s co-author is Kelsey J. Pieper, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.


Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu

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