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​Well Tested!: Survey of private well water use in Brant

Lead author 

Tin Vo

Project team 

Sheryl Lee, Ryan Mak, Heather Clark, Mike Smith, Sarah Edwards, Jeff Kowal, Karen Boughner

Date

April 2015

Executive Summary

Introduction
The Ontario Drinking Water Standards recommend private well owners test their water at least three times per year. Currently, the Brant County Health Unit offers free water quality testing for private well owners. Despite this free service, not all rural community members test their water. In addition, owners’ reasons for not testing, testing, and testing the recommended three times per year are not clear. The primary purpose of this project was to explore the reasons for these choices.

Methods
There are approximately 2700 privately owned wells in Brant that are registered with the Ministry of Environment (this number includes some wells no longer in use).
Between May and August 2014, the Health Unit obtained information about the owners of these wells from these sources:

  • Phone and address list of households who previously did water testing and were recorded in Ontario’s Water Testing Information System Electronic Notification database
  • Canada Post phone number list
  • Canada Post mailing address list
  • Online survey
  • Newspaper, Google and Facebook ads

In total, the Health Unit spoke with 546 private well owners on the phone and 219 (40%) completed the survey. As well, 22 owners completed the survey online and 7 did so using instructions sent on a printed postcard.

Results

  • Eighty-six percent of households had one well on their property (n=283).
  • Most households (87%) drank water from their wells; however, only 46% had tested their well water for Escherichia coli and total coliform in the past 12 months.
  • For the 127 households that tested their well water in the past year, most households’ water did not contain E. coli (90%) or total coliform (84%).
  • Among those who tested in the past year (n=127), only 17% tested their well three times or more.

Survey respondents provided many reasons for testing and not testing.
Testing:

  • Did it routinely;
  • Forced to test when bought or sold their house; and
  • No specific reason.

Not testing:

  • No concern;
  • Inconvenient process; and
  • Do not drink water from well.

For the 245 households who own private wells and drink from them, 58% did not treat their water. The 103 households that drank water from their wells and treated their well water used these methods:

  • 43% used only a chemical water treatment device
  • 40% used only a biological water treatment device
  • 18% used both biological and chemical water treatment devices  

Ultraviolet light was the most common biological water treatment device, while filtration was the most common chemical water treatment device.

There was only a small difference in testing rates between owners who do and do not treat their well water.

The Health Unit found many challenges in reaching private well owners to do the survey, including:

  • Time of day calls were made;
  • Change in phone numbers;
  • Address changes; and
  • Suspicion about the caller, survey and/or Health Unit.

In addition, the survey was susceptible to social desirability bias, particularly given the relationship between water quality and home values.

Conclusion
Little information was known about why rural community members test or do not test their private well water. The survey findings will help the Health Unit reach out to private well owners and encourage testing.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

1.1. Context

1.2. Purpose

2. Methods

2.1. Data collection and sources

2.1.1. Survey

2.1.2. Surveillance data

2.2. Data analysis

3. Results

3.1. Overview of data sources

3.2. Geographic spread of sample

3.3. Characteristics of private wells

3.4. Use of private wells

3.5. Testing behaviours

3.6. Treating private well water

3.7. Risks for contamination of well water used for drinking

3.8. Review of Lab Results for Private Well Water Testing

4. Discussion and Recommendations

4.1. Discussion

4.1.1. Reasons for Testing and Not Testing

4.1.2. Common Well Characteristics

4.1.3. Frequency of Bacteriological Testing

4.1.4. Risks for Poor Water Quality

4.1.5. Data Quality for Lab Results of Private Well Water Testing

4.2. Limitations

4.2.1. Methodological Limitations

4.2.2. Researcher Limitations

4.3. Recommendations

4.3.1. Short-term Recommendations

4.3.2. Long-term Recommendations

5. Conclusion

6. References & Additional Resources

Appendix I: Background

Appendix II: Well Tested! Survey

Appendix III: Protocol for Student Public Health Inspectors

Appendix IV: Breakdown of Data Sources


Well Tested!: Survey of private well water use in Brant

1. Introduction

1.1. Context
The Ministry of Environment well records show approximately 2700 privately owned wells in Brant, including some private wells that are no longer in use. It is likely that many private well owners do not regularly test their well water (Jones et al., 2006; Kreutzwiser et al., 2011). Better understanding the state of wells and well water in Brant can help improve public health information and services, including surveillance of water quality. Monitoring water quality by tracking test results would help the Brant County Health Unit (BCHU) encourage well water testing in Brant. Not much is currently known at BCHU about the wells in Brant and the limited information available is over a decade old (e.g., Brant County State of the Environment Report, 1997). This project is working toward updating the information BCHU has about private wells in Brant.

Small drinking water systems that are privately owned but provide water to the public are regulated by legislation and regulations.  Since these legislation and regulations exclude well water supplies on private homes, these private well owners are responsible for maintaining and testing their water themselves, and ensuring their water supply is safe to drink.

The Ontario Drinking Water Standards recommend private well owners test their water at least three times per year. Currently, the BCHU offers free water quality testing for the presence of total coliforms and Escherichia coli to private well owners. Owners can pick up sample bottles from the BCHU reception or at any of the other locations in Burford, Oakland, Onondaga, Paris, and St. George. Water samples must be dropped off at the Health Unit. Samples are then picked up by a courier service that brings the samples to the Public Health Laboratories in Hamilton, Ontario. Results are either mailed to or picked up from the Lab by the private well owner. Private well owners can also call an automated number to receive their test results. Despite this free service, not all rural community members test their water. Also, the results of those choosing to test their well water are available for surveillance; owners’ reasons for not testing, testing, and testing the recommended three times per year are not clear.

Water testing literature identifies numerous barriers to testing well water, including complacency, lack of a perceived problem, inconvenience of sample bottle pick up and drop off times and location to drop off samples (Imgrund, Kreutzwiser, Loe, 2011; Jones et al., 2006; Kreutzwiser et al., 2011). These barriers may be relevant to private well owners in Brant because the mix of urban/rural population may worsen the impact of these barriers. People living in the rural areas of Brant are more likely to be on their private well water supply, instead of a municipal water supply. Private wells located on farmland may have an increased risk for Escherichia coli (Coleman et al, 2013; Goss, Barry, Rudolph, 1998), which is important for private well owners to know if they have farms or live near farms. It is important that key messages are relevant to individuals living in rural communities.

Background information regarding waterborne illnesses and private well water concerns are discussed in Appendix I. For the purposes of the Health Unit’s mandate, this project will focus on bacterial contamination.

1.2. Purpose
The primary purpose of the research project was to explore who is testing and how often or who is not testing their well water and reasons why. The results will help BCHU create public health programs and services relevant to private well owners. This project’s goal is to reduce the number of poor water quality test results and increase regular testing numbers. This will help optimize the health of the community through better water quality.
The objectives of the project were to:

  1. Identify the reasons why County of Brant residents test their wells for bacteria and why residents do not test their wells.
  2. Determine the frequency of bacteriological testing.
  3. Identify common types of wells that exist in the County of Brant.
  4. Explore the risks for poor water quality, including incorrect water treatment device use, housing livestock, and use of manure on property.
  5. Assess data quality for lab results of private well testing.

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2. Methods

2.1. Data collection and sources
2.1.1. Survey
County of Brant residents were asked to complete a survey over the phone, in person, or online (see Appendix II for survey questions). Residents were surveyed by student public health inspectors between May and August 2014 from the following sources:

  1. List of households that previously submitted water for testing. The list comprised of 488 households who submitted water for testing between 2011 and 2013.  Households were contacted via phone to complete the survey.
  2. Canada Post registered mailing list. Postcards were mailed out to the mailing list of 811 households, which excluded individuals who had not previously tested. The mailing list was handled with by Distributech.  
  3. Canada Post registered phone list. The phone list from Canada Post was comprised of 708 households from the registered mailing list accessed.
  4. Online survey. The survey was made available on the BCHU website for County of Brant residents to complete. Residents were directed to the online survey via advertisements from local newspapers, Google, and Facebook.
  5. Other sources. Households were asked to complete the survey during bunkhouse inspections and when individuals dropped off water samples for testing.

Households included in the survey were those that had private wells on their property and were not connected to a municipal water supply. Households that had municipal water supplies  or were located outside of the County of Brant were excluded from data collection and analysis.

The survey was pilot tested in April by the main author (T. Vo) for 8 households that submitted their water samples for testing. The student PHIs followed a protocol with some flexibility based on contextual factors (see Appendix III for survey protocol).

2.1.2. Surveillance data
Test results for 2013 were accessed from the Water Testing Information System Electronic Notification (WTISEN) database. These results are comprised of household information and the E. coli and total coliform counts for those households.

2.2. Data analysis
Data were analyzed using Microsoft Excel 2010 and IBM SPSS Statistics 21.

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3. Results

3.1. Overview of data sources
A total of 321 surveys were completed; however, only 283 surveys were included in the analysis (see Appendix IV for additional information).

Table 1 outlines the sources from which surveys were completed. Most completed surveys came from the phone list registered with Canada Post, making up 40% of completed surveys. The list of people who previously tested was the next best source, at 37% of completed surveys.

3.2. Geographic spread of sample
Households completing the surveys were located in West Brant County (76%), South Dumfries (19%), and South Brant County (5%) (Figure 1). West Brant County included Burford, Harley, Oakland, and Scotland. South Dumfries included the outskirts of Paris, St. George, and Glen Morris. South Brant County included the Onondaga and parts of Mount Pleasant that do not have municipal water supplies.

3.3. Characteristics of private wells
Most households (86%) used only one well. A small number of households (12%) had 2 wells, while an even smaller number (2%) had 3 or more wells on their property. Twenty-one (7%) households had an abandoned well on their property. Nineteen households had 1 abandoned well, while 2 households had 2 abandoned wells on their property.

Most households (48%) used a drilled well. The next two common well types were driven wells (sand or well point) (30%) and dug or bored wells (15%). Some households (1%) used other water sources, such as a spring or artesian aquifer. A small number of survey respondents (6%) did not know what type of well they had on their property.

3.4. Use of private wells
Most households (87%) used a well (private or communal ) as a source for drinking water. Thirty-six (13%) households drank bottled water or used a water cooler rather than their well. Two (1%) households used either a spring or a cistern as a source of drinking water. Most households (99%) used their well for household purposes other than for drinking (e.g., dental hygiene, bathing, cleaning, etc.). Only 2 (1%) households used a cistern for household uses.

The households drinking from wells did not vary by well type: 91% households with drilled wells; 85% households with driven wells; and 81% households with dug or bored wells (Figure 2).

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3.5. Testing behaviours
Most households (150/283; 53%) had not tested their water for bacteria within the past year, while 127/283 (45%) of households had tested their well water at least once in the past year. Twenty-two (8%) households had tested more than 3 times within the past 12 months, while 105 (37%) households had tested 1-2 times. In other words, of the 127 households that tested in the past year, 22 (17%) tested at least 3 times per year. Six of 283 (2%) survey respondents did not know if their household had tested for bacteria in the past 12 months.

For the 245 households that drank water from their wells, 54% of households had not tested their wells for bacteria in the past 12 months (Figure 3). This group had an unknown level of risk for contamination because they would not truly know whether or not their well is free of bacteria. Most households (85%) that drank from their wells had the recommended negative test result of zero E. coli and total coliform count (Figure 3). Conversely, 15% of households that drank water from their well had a positive test result for E. coli or total coliform (Figure 3).

The households that did test their well water for bacteria offered reasons why they tested:

  • Routine activity
  • Physical quality of well water (e.g., colour, cloudiness, odour)
  • Heavy rain and change in seasons
  • Positive E. coli in previous test
  • Selling/buying home
  • Property type (e.g., farm, migrant farm, bunk house)
  • Other reasons:
    • No specific reason
    • General concern for health/curiosity
    • Neighbours had high E. coli
    • Concern for nitrates
    • Water issue in Walkerton

There were some common themes as to why most households did not test their well water for bacteria:

  • Individual level reasons:
    • Too busy or do not have time to submit water samples;
    • Forgot, too lazy, or simply neglected to submit water samples;
    •  No concern for bacterial contamination because there has not been any problems so far (i.e., nobody has gotten sick from drinking, water tastes great, well was recently installed, good results previously);
    • Did not know the recommendation for annual testing;
    • Unaware of testing service.
  • Structural level reasons:
    • Inconvenient hours and distance to drop off water samples.
  • Other reasons:
    • Just moved into the home and have not gotten around to submitting water sample.

3.6. Treating private well water
For the 245 households that drank water from their wells, 58% of households did not treat the water (Figure 4). For the 103 households that drank water from their wells and treated their well water, 40% of households had only a biological water treatment device; 43% of households had only a chemical water treatment device; and 18% of households had both biological and chemical water treatment devices (Figure 4). The 142 households that did not treat their wells and the 44 households that only treated their wells with a chemical treatment device might be at risk for bacterial contamination (Figure 4).

Biological water treatment devices include: boiling, chlorination, ultraviolet light, and hydrogen peroxide. Chemical water treatment devices include: filters (including iron filter, sulphur filter, Brita filter), reverse osmosis units, and water softeners. Ultraviolet light was the most common biological water treatment device, while filters were the most common chemical water treatment device (Table 2).

For the 103 households that treated the well water that they used for drinking, 81% of households had 1 water treatment device; 15% of households had 2 water treatment devices; and 5% of households had 3 or more water treatment devices.

The 103 households that treated their wells with a water treatment device were marginally more likely to submit water for bacteriological testing, where most of those households submitted water for testing (57%) (Figure 5).  For the 59 households that submitted water for testing, most of those households (83%) had a negative test result for both E. coli and total coliform (i.e., have a count of 0) when they tested for bacteria in the past 12 months (Figure 5). Conversely, the 142 households that did not treat their wells were marginally less likely to submit water for bacteriological testing, where most of those households did not submit water for testing (62%).  Most of the 54 households (91%) that did not treat their wells and submitted water for bacteriological testing had a negative test result for both E. coli and total coliform (Figure 5). The households that did not submit water for testing, whether or not they treated their wells, had an unknown risk of bacterial contamination because they had not tested their water.

3.7. Risks for contamination of well water used for drinking
For the 245 households that drank their well water, 14% of households might be at risk for water contamination because they housed livestock on their own property or neighbouring properties. For the group that had livestock housed nearby, 52% of those households housed livestock on their property, while 48% of households had neighbours who housed livestock on their property. For this group, most (58%) had submitted water for bacteriological testing.

For the 33 households that have livestock housed nearby, a majority (58%) did not have a biological water treatment device (Figure 6). This group that did not have a biological water treatment device might be at risk for bacterial contamination. The 33 households that had livestock housed nearby were marginally less likely to treat their wells with biological water treatment devices. 


For the 245 households that drank their well water, 17% of households might be at risk for water contamination due to spreading/storage of manure on nearby property. For 41 households where manure was spread/stored nearby, 49% of those households spread/stored manure on their property, while 51% of those households had neighbours who spread/stored manure on their property. For these 41 households, a little more than half of households (51%) had not submitted water for bacteriological testing.

For the 41 households that had manure spread/stored on nearby property, most (63%) did not have a biological water treatment device (Figure 7). This group that did not have a biological water treatment device might be at risk for bacterial contamination. The 41 households that have manure spread/stored nearby were marginally less likely to treat their wells with biological water treatment devices.  


3.8. Review of Lab Results for Private Well Water Testing
Lab results were reviewed from the Water Testing Information System Electronic Notification (WTISEN) database. Due to the quality and completeness of data in the database, only test results from 2013 were used for analysis.

A total of 819 water samples were made in 2013 for households in County of Brant. These samples were made up of 471 households in the County of Brant. This number of households, however, was a rough estimate because some submissions had incomplete addresses. Only 78/471 households (17%) tested at least 3 times in 2013; of these households, 4 households tested more than 10 times in the year.

Most samples (643/819; 79%) had no significant bacterial presence. Conversely, 19/819 (2%) and 159/819 (19%) samples had positive E. coli and total coliform counts, respectively. A small number of samples 17/819 (2%) were not tested for various reasons, such as incomplete information, bad sample, or too old.

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4. Discussion and Recommendations

4.1. Discussion
The project discovered reasons why some County of Brant residents tested their private wells for bacteria, while others did not; determined the common well characteristics, frequency of bacteriological testing, and risks for poor water quality; and assessed the data quality for lab results of private well testing. The results are similar to what other studies have found (Charrois 2010; Coleman et al. 2013; Goss et al 1998; Hynds, Misstear, Gill, 2013; Imgrund et al 2011; Jones et al. 2005; Jones et al 2006; Kreutzwiser et al 2011).

4.1.1. Reasons for Testing and Not Testing
The County of Brant residents who participated in the survey were split evenly when it came to testing their private well water in the past 12 months. Many residents noted that testing was routine for them, which is a positive attitude that Imgrund et al. (2011) found as a facilitator to testing private well water (i.e., helped households test regularly). Other reasons for testing included previous test results, change in season, and physical quality of the water. These motivators to testing were similar to what other researchers have found (Jones et al., 2006; Kreutzwiser et al., 2011). As Imgrund et al. (2011) discuss, making well water testing a routine ensures that private well owners test their water regularly.

Many residents had not tested their wells in the past 12 months. Two main reasons for not testing were complacency and inconvenience. The complacency arose from the lack of negative health issues due to drinking water or positive bacteriological test results previously. This sense of complacency is not unusual for private well owners, as demonstrated by Imgrund et al. (2011) and Jones et al. (2005). Jones et al. (2005) noted that waterborne illnesses are often self-limiting (i.e., the body clears up the illness on its own) and tend to require continuous exposure and thus often making it go unnoticed.

Similarly, Imgrund et al. (2011) proposed that household owners developed a false sense of security due to the lack of illnesses arising from drinking private well water, or the lack of bacterial contamination of their water source (via previous bacteriological testing). The sense of complacency is contributed by inconvenience of testing, particularly in the rural areas where pick-up and drop-off locations for private water samples were often located a long distance away (Hexemer et al., 2008; Imgrund et al., 2011; Jones et al., 2005).  

4.1.2. Common Well Characteristics
Most survey respondents had drilled wells, which were commonly found by other Ontario studies (Jones et al., 2006; Kreutzwiser et al., 2011). A small group of survey respondents used a dug well. The households using dug wells were at higher risk of bacterial contamination because they often had shallower depths and used brick, stone or concrete tile linings (Goss et al., 1998; Yessis et al., 1996). Yessis et al. (1996) found that dug wells were 3.5 times at greater risk to contamination compared to drilled wells. Interestingly, Hynds et al. (2013) found that dug well owners tended to know more about their wells (well type and construction, treatment device, testing habits and results, etc.). Due to the low response rate in this project, it was difficult to describe behaviours of households by well type.

4.1.3. Frequency of Bacteriological Testing
Regular bacteriological testing is considered the most concrete approach to determine safety of drinking water (Imgrund et al., 2011). The proportion of survey respondents who tested and those who did not test were similar to those noted by Charrois (2010). A similar proportion of households was found by Jones et al. (2006) that tested at least 3 times per year (8%). Similarly, Maier et al. (2014) found that about 11-13% of all Ontario households that submitted samples tested at least 3 times per year between 2008 and 2012. Maier et al. (2014) noted that there was a statistically significant decrease by 15% in Ontario households that tested at least 3 times per year over 2008 and 2012 with a decrease of almost 38% between 2003 and 2012.

The lab results for the County of Brant in 2013 showed that households testing at least 3 times per year were similar to survey respondents in this project (17% in both instances). The similarity might be that the group sampled for the survey (under half) were from the list of households that had previously tested.

4.1.4. Risks for Poor Water Quality
Most survey respondents noted that they did not use a water treatment device. This majority is similar to that found by Hynds et al. (2013). For the few respondents who did have a treatment device, 40% had only a biological treatment device, while 18% had both a biological and chemical treatment device. These households would be at lower risk of bacterial contamination. Despite having a water treatment device, slightly more survey respondents noted positive results for E. coli than respondents who did not have a water treatment device. This might be due to a greater proportion of households that had treatment devices testing than those that did not have treatment devices. Interestingly, Jones et al. (2005) noted that private well owners in their study used treatment devices not because they were concerned about their health (or the safety of their water source), but to alter unwanted characteristics of the water (e.g., reduce the hardness and sulphur content of the water).

A small group of households surveyed might be at risk for bacterial contamination because they had livestock housed nearby (on their property or their neighbour’s property) or spread/stored manure nearby (on their property or their neighbour’s property), which might result in waterborne illness from continual exposure (Charrois, 2010; Coleman et al., 2013; Richardson et al., 2009; Yessis et al., 1996). Some of these households might be at greater risk if they do not have a water treatment device for biological contaminants. Therefore, careful planning, well construction, and use of a biological water treatment device would be important to reduce the potential for bacterial contamination. This could be done by constructing wells far away and ideally uphill from livestock and manure storage.

4.1.5. Data Quality for Lab Results of Private Well Water Testing
The quality of data from the WTISEN database was poor. The challenges with data included:

  • Incomplete and/or incorrect contact information (e.g., submitter’s first/last names, addresses);
  • Gaps in months of data across the years;
  • Testing of samples from municipal water sources;
  • Numerous submissions from the same household and submissions that were not tested (e.g., submitting samples outside the 48 hour window needed for testing).

The need for households to submit more than 10 times in a year seems unnecessary, but it has happened. The multiple instances where samples are not tested would be frustrating for individuals because they may have to take time off work and drive to BCHU to drop-off water samples. Having to do this multiple times because the sample was not accepted would be extremely frustrating. This frustration may lead individuals to devalue the need to submit samples in the future.

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4.2. Limitations
4.2.1. Methodological Limitations
The data represented a convenience sample and a small sample size, which might have influenced the results. The sample included only households with a phone number and/or household address registered with Canada Post and households with the correct phone number, address, and name of household owner(s). This affected whether or not the individual responded to the phone call and/or agreed to participate in the survey. In addition, the sample was comprised of households with adults at home during the 9am to 5pm period (only a small number of households were contacted between 5 to 8pm. Therefore, survey respondents included individuals who were available and willing to participate in the survey; these individuals might be more likely to have time to properly maintain their wells, to have concern about their well, and/or to test their well water.

The short data collection period (May to August) might not have captured as many survey respondents as possible. Approximately 67% of households were called based on the phone lists available. A longer data collection period could have reached larger number of households.

The collection of self-reported data might be subject to recall bias and social desirability bias, which could have skewed the results. Survey respondents might have reported inaccurate information due to poor memory or simply lacking information because they were not the main person who maintained the private well, or they were new household owners and the information was not given to them.

The survey could have been better designed to include skip patterns to reduce or eliminate people who might have been irrelevant or should have been excluded from the analysis. Exclusion/inclusion of certain questions might not have been as helpful. This was seen with the question about testing, which should have specified bacterial or chemical testing. As such, responses to questions remained relatively unclear and could only be analyzed generally.

Upon review of test results from the WTISEN database, there appeared to be numerous typos for the name and address of individuals submitting samples for testing. This made it challenging to properly discern individual households and determine the frequency of testing by households.  

4.2.2. Researcher Limitations
Difficulties arose when contacting households by phone to participate in the survey. Individuals who were called to participate in the survey were suspicious about the student PHIs and often asked how the students got their phone numbers. The student PHIs were questioned about their legitimacy, especially in instances where the household owner was asked to confirm their address. There might be a possibility of a difference in response rate depending on the sex of the student PHI. The feedback often received from individuals declining to participate was that they did not want to speak with a government agency. This was similar to what Tabbot & Robson (2006) found, whereby residents seemed concerned about personal liability should contamination occur (or be found) and they were less likely to participate in the study. On a similar note, Jones et al. (2005) noted that some participants feared the possible government response if a positive (contaminated) result was discovered (i.e., they did not want to be forced to fix something because of the possible cost).

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4.3. Recommendations
4.3.1. Short-term Recommendations
4.3.1.1. Review the process for water testing submissions
The poor data quality from the WTISEN database may be improved if an extra data check is completed. The process for water testing submissions could be reviewed to identify possible areas for improvement to ensure submissions are complete and potential efficiencies in the process. This approach may help reduce the number of incomplete submissions and instances where samples are not tested.

A number of surveys and test results from WTISEN came from an address that should be on municipal water supply. Therefore, individuals dropping off samples could be asked whether or not the water comes from a municipal water source or private well to ensure resources are being used appropriately; this question should be asked when possible.

An added procedure to consider for feasibility is contacting households that tested positive for E. coli. These households could be informed of the reason why they might have received a positive test result, and provided with options. In order to reduce the number of calls made (i.e., workload concerns), households that have tested only once in the current calendar year could be contacted to ensure that they have all the information they need. Otherwise, households testing regularly likely do not need more information, as they might already know what to do. However, households that test greater than a threshold number (e.g., greater than 8 times) in the calendar year could be contacted to determine the reason why they are testing too often. Part of the consideration for contacting households with positive test results is whether or not it is valuable to ensure households have the appropriate information to properly maintain private wells and prevent bacterial contamination.

ACTION 1: Review the private water testing submission procedure for potential areas of improvement from the point of water bottle pick-up to drop-off to receiving test results.

ACTION 2: Based on feasibility, create a protocol for private water testing submissions.

4.3.1.2. Explore feasibility to have additional sample drop-off locations in County of Brant
The majority of survey respondents identified complacency and inconvenience as reasons for not testing their private well water, while very few survey respondents identified lack of awareness and education regarding proper well maintenance as reasons for not testing. This aligns with what Kreutzwiser et al. (2011) found with their study group, suggesting that strategies to increase testing could focus more on reducing structural barriers and negative or complacent attitudes toward testing, rather than focusing on education and awareness.

The inconvenience of submitting a water sample often discouraged individuals from testing because: the testing location is too far; lack of time available; or inconvenient hours to drop-off samples. One way the BCHU could overcome this sense of inconvenience (structural barrier) is to explore the feasibility of more sample drop-off locations in the County of Brant. The first step is to determine the frequency of citizens picking up empty water bottles at offices in County of Brant (i.e., Burford, Oakland, Onondaga, Paris, and St. George).

The additional sample drop-off locations could be pilot tested for one year to evaluate its sustainability (based on financial and human resources) and whether more water samples were submitted compared to previous years. Evaluation could be based on the proportion of water sample submissions from households that have not tested in previous years and repeat households from the new locations.

ACTION 3: Determine the frequency of empty water bottle pick-up at County of Brant office locations.

ACTION 4: Determine the feasibility of options for pilot testing water bottle submissions in County of Brant location(s).

ACTION 5: Implement and evaluate pilot test if feasible.

4.3.1.3. Explore health promotion and health communication opportunities to encourage regular private well water testing
Some survey respondents reported that they did not know when, where, or how often to test their well water. Some efforts could be made to remind households on private well water to test their well water for bacteria on a regular basis (e.g., with the change in seasons). Kreutzwiser et al. (2011) suggest that community events could be a venue to promote regular well water testing and may be an opportunity for the BCHU to accept water samples for testing. The events happening during Earth Week or the Paris Fall Fair, for example, may be events where private well water bacteriological testing could be promoted and where attendees on well water are encouraged to test regularly. The option could be available for individuals attending who are on well water to submit a water sample. A water cooler could be made available and then brought back to the BCHU at lunch time and then at the end of the day. Other events should be explored to regularly disseminate private well water testing information, and offer an opportunity for households to drop off water samples to be tested for bacteria.

Social media and other media channels could be employed to direct key messages around regular testing toward the population strictly on a private water system. Key messages and a schedule of information dissemination should be identified. As Imgrund et al. (2011) argue, increased awareness and education alone likely will not increase the proportion of households testing regularly for bacteria. Therefore, different approaches should be considered and current efforts could be expanded on to better accomplish the goal of increasing regular bacteriological testing.

ACTION 6: Determine events where private well water testing could have a presence and submissions could be accepted.

ACTION 7: Review the communications plan including key messages for private well water testing and a schedule for information dissemination.

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4.3.2. Long-term Recommendations
4.3.2.1. Set up an internal surveillance system to monitor private water testing in Brant
On a monthly basis, test results could be pulled from the secure server and entered into a database at the BCHU. The results could be analyzed to ensure that the water quality for private households in Brant is at an acceptable level and there are no adverse test results (i.e., results are 0 total coliform and/or E. coli). Results would be analyzed with the caveat that adverse test results may be caused by a variety of reasons (New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, 2010):

  • True bacterial contamination
    • Bacterial contamination caused by poor well construction.
    • Contamination caused by recent well pump installation, replacement, or plumbing repair.
    • Contamination caused by physical damage to the aquifer’s filtration capability.
    • Biological activity occurring within treatment equipment and piping.

  • Sampling or testing error
    • Sample collection was improper.
    • Dirty sample bottle and poor handling in the laboratory environment.

Through surveillance of water test results, the BCHU can identify how often households test each year. The BCHU can see the time of year samples are often submitted and when issues often arise, which could inform public health messaging and help to focus the timing of advertising key messages (e.g., wells should be tested around the change in seasons and periods of high precipitation). In addition, actions could be taken based on the results to catch problems early, ensuring that individuals who may be testing too frequently (e.g., more than ten times per year) or have numerous positive test results are provided with options as to how maintain the quality of their well water if they are not already aware of those options.

Monthly and annual reports for surveillance could be made available for the general public around general statistics via the website. A summary report could be written based on the surveillance and survey results. An executive summary could be provided for the Health Unit’s Board of Health, along with County of Brant officials involved with public health and safety or water operations.

ACTION 8: Create a database to enter private well water test results from WTISEN with the support of the Program Planning & Evaluation Team.

ACTION 9: Access and enter results into the database on a monthly basis.

ACTION 10: Analyze results and produce regular reports (e.g., monthly, annually) of adverse versus non-adverse test results.

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5. Conclusion

The Health Unit has not previously known why rural households in the County of Brant choose to test or not test their private well water. The project discovered reasons why some County of Brant residents tested their private wells for bacteria, while others did not; determined the common well characteristics, frequency of bacteriological testing, and risks for poor water quality; and assessed the data quality for lab results of private well testing.

Bacterial contamination of private well water affects a small number of households in the County of Brant. Since regular bacteriological testing is considered the most concrete approach to determine safety of drinking water, more effort should be made to increase testing levels. The survey findings will help the Health Unit offer programs and services better suited to private well owners’ needs to encourage testing.

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6. References & Additional Resources

Charrois, J.W.A. (2010). Private drinking water supplies: Challenges for public health. Canadian Medical Association Journal, DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.090956.

Coleman, B.L., Louie, M., Salvadori, M.I., McEwen, S.A., Neumann, N., Sibley, K., Irwin, R.J., Jamieson, F.B., Daignault, D., Majury, A., Braithwaite, S., Crago, B., McGeer, A.J. (2013). Contamination of Canadian private drinking water sources with antimicrobial resistant Escherichia coli. Water Research, 47, 3026-3036.

Conservation Corps Newfoundland and Labrador. (2013a). Well Basics. Well Aware. Retrieved from: http://www.ccnl.ca/wellaware/dug-wells-drilled-wells.php.

Conservation Corps Newfoundland and Labrador. (2013b). Water Quality. Well Aware. Retrieved from: http://www.ccnl.ca/wellaware/water-treatment.php.

Daschner, F.D., Ruden, H., Simon, R., Clotten, J. (1996). Microbiological contamination of drinking water in a commercial household water filter system. European Journal of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, 15, 233-237.

Goss, M.J., Barry, D.A.J., Rudolph, D.L. (1998). Contamination in Ontario farmstead domestic wells and its association with agriculture: Results from drinking water wells. Journal of Contaminant Hydrology, 32, 267-293.

Hexemer, A.M., Pintar, K., Bird, T.M., Zentner, S.E., Garcia, H.P., Pollari, F. (2008). An investigation of bacteriological and chemical water quality and the barriers to private well water sampling in a Southwestern Ontario community. Journal of Water and Health, 6(4), 521-525.

Hynds, P.D., Misstear, B.D., Gill, L.W. (2013). Unregulated private wells in the Republic of Ireland: Consumer awareness, source susceptibility and protective actions. Journal of Environmental Management, 127, 278-288.

Imgrund, K., Kreutzwiser, R., de Loe, R. (2011). Influences on the water testing behaviours of private well owners. Journal of Water and Health, 9(2), 241-253.

Jones, A.Q., Dewey, C.E., Dore, K., Majowicz, S.E., McEwen, S.A., Waltner-Toews, D., Mathews, E., Carr, D., Henson, S. (2006). Public perceptions of drinking water: A postal survey of residents with private water supplies. Biomed Central Public Health, 6, 94-104.

Jones, A.Q., Dewey, C.E., Dore, K., Majowicz, S.E., McEwen, S.A., Waltner-Toews, D., Henson, S.J., Mathews, E. (2005). Public perception of drinking water from private water supplies: Focus group analyses. BMC Public Health, 5, 129-140.

Kreutzwiser, R., de Loe, R., Imgrund, K., Conboy, M.J., Simpson, H., Plummer, R. (2011). Understanding stewardship behaviour: Factors facilitating and constraining private water well stewardship. Journal of Environmental Management, 92, 1104-1114.

Maier, A., Krolik, J., Randhawa, K., Majury, A. (2014). Bacteriological testing of private well water: A trends and guidelines assessment using five years of submissions data from southeastern Ontario. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 105(3), e203-e208.

New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. (2010). Environmental fact sheet: Causes of positive bacteria results in water samples. Concord, New Hampshire, USA: New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. Retrieved from: http://des.nh.gov/organization/commissioner/pip/factsheets/dwgb/documents/dwgb-4-2.pdf.

Postma, J., Butterfield, P.W., Odom-Maryon, T., Hill, W., Butterfield, P.G. (2011). Rural children’s exposure to well water contaminants: Implications in light of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent policy statement. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, 23, 258-265.

The Regional Municipality of Halton. (2007). Halton Region rural drinking water study 2006, phase 1. Oakville, Ontario: The Regional Municipality of Halton. Retrieved from: http://www.halton.ca/cms/one.aspx?portalId=8310&pageId=15000.

Richardson, H.Y., Nichols, G., Lane, C., Lake, I.R., Hunter, P.R. (2009). Microbiological surveillance of private water supplies in England – The impact of environmental and climate factors on water quality. Water Research, 43, 2159-2168.

Rogan, W.J., Brady, M.T. (2009). Drinking water from private wells and risks to children. Pediatrics, 123(6), e1123-e1137.

Tabbot, P.N., Robson, M.G. (2006). The New Jersey residential well-testing program – A case study: Randolph Township. Journal of Environmental Health, 69(2), 15-19.

World Health Organization. (2011). Guidelines for drinking-water quality, 4th ed. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization. Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/publications/2011/dwq_guidelines/en/index.html.

Yessis, J., McColl, R.S., Seliske, P. (1996). Methodological aspects of monitoring for microbial contamination of drinking water from private wells: The water quality program of the Region of Waterloo. Canadian Water Resources Journal, 21(3), 221-228.

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Appendix I: Background

Public health concerns for failing to regularly test well water include waterborne illnesses and chemical contamination (Charrois, 2010). These concerns may be even more serious for children and seniors with weakened immune systems (Charrois, 2010; Postma, Butterfield, Odom-Maryon, Hill, Butterfield, 2011; Rogan & Brady, 2009). Frequent testing of well water may detect and reduce risk of chemical and micro-organism contamination at an earlier stage.

Proper care and maintenance of dug and drilled wells are important, especially for older wells, in order to prevent contamination of chemicals (e.g., nitrate, nitrite, fluoride) and/or micro-organisms (e.g., E. coli, Giardia, Salmonella, Shigella, norovirus) (Daschner, Ruden, Simon, Clotten, 1996; Jones et al, 2006). Specifically, dug wells are at higher risk of contamination from micro-organisms because bacteria are more likely to be found closer to the surface (Conservation Corps Newfoundland and Labrador, 2013a). Drilled wells are less likely to be contaminated with biological agents like bacteria, but the drilled wells may be more prone to chemical contamination because of their depth (Conservation Corps Newfoundland and Labrador, 2013a). Therefore, testing for both bacteria and chemical contamination is important in dug and drilled wells. For the purposes of the Health Unit’s mandate, this project will focus on micro-organism (bacteria) contamination.

While private well owners are not legally required to install water treatment devices, water treatment devices may be recommended to improve water quality. Water treatment devices may not be necessary if the water is at a reasonable quality. Micro-organism and chemical contamination are treated by different water treatment devices (Conservation Corps Newfoundland and Labrador, 2013b). The first type of water treatment device includes: chlorinators, distillers, ozonators, and ultraviolet light devices. The latter type includes: activated carbon filters, ion exchange water softeners, and reverse osmosis units. Since water treatment devices that treat chemical contaminants do not remove bacteria and other biological contaminants, both types of water treatment devices should ideally be used at the same time. The Regional Municipality of Halton (2007) found that 17% of residents who reported using ultraviolet light filters and 17% of residents who reported using chlorinators still showed contamination of bacteria in their water samples. This could be due to incorrect use and maintenance of the treatment devices.

Because BCHU supports both health protection and promotion of Brant residents, surveillance of factors that may compromise human health is necessary. Surveillance promotes improving public health through better water quality. Surveillance can help find risks and take action before health issues arise and even identify sources of waterborne disease (World Health Organization, 2011). In addition, surveillance can help develop strategies for improving water quality: establishing priorities; establishing hygiene education; and supporting proper operation and maintenance of water supplies. However, it remains an owner’s responsibility to properly operate and maintain their water supplies.

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Appendix II: Well Tested! Survey

This general household questionnaire should take about 10 minutes to complete and covers things about your water supply and septic system. You are free to refuse to answer any question and to stop the interview at any time. However, your responses are all important for the health of the community, and I encourage you to answer all of the questions if possible. Do you have any questions before we start?
 
1. First, may I ask how long have you lived at this address? [enter period or number of years]

2. How many wells do you have on your property?

3. Where do you get the water you use for drinking?
     a. Private well
     b. Communal well (more than 6 households)
     c. Cistern
     d. Bottled (bulk or individual)
     e. Other
     f. Don’t know

4. Where do you get the water you use for bathing, dental care, and other household uses?
     a. Same source as above
     b. Private well
     c. Communal well (more than 6 households)
     d. Cistern
     e. Other
     f. Don’t know

5. What type of well do you have? [note type of well if more than one well on property]
     a. Drilled
     b. Dug or bored
     c. Driven (sand point or well point)
     d. Other
     e. Don’t know

6. How deep is your well? (What is the depth of the well?)
     a. (feet or metres)
     b. Don’t know

7. How old is your well? If known, what year was it installed?

8. Have any repairs and/or maintenance been done on your well or water lines in the past 12 months?
     a. Yes  (If yes, what was the date?)
     b. No
     c. Don’t know

9. Have you tested your well in the past 12 months?
     a. Yes
     b. No (Why not?)
     c. Don’t know

10. Why did you submit your water for bacteriological testing this most recent time?
     a. Do it regularly / routinely
     b. Off colour / cloudy
     c. Bad / different taste
     d. Odour
     e. Heavy rain
     f. People with stomach illness / diarrhea
     g. E. coli in previous test
     h. Total coliform in previous test
     i. Other
     j. No specific reason
     k. Don’t know

11. How many times did you submit your water for bacteriological testing in the past 12 months?
     a. (Number)
     b. 3+ times
     c. 1-2 times
     d. Never
     e. Don’t know

12. How many times has your well water tested positive for E. coli in the past 12 months?
     a. (Number)
     b. 3+ times
     c. 1-2 times
     d. Never
     e. Don’t know

13. How many times do you recall it tested positive for total coliform in the past 12 months?
     a. (Number)
     b. 3+ times
     c. 1-2 times
     d. Never
     e. Don’t know

14. Do you currently treat the water you use for drinking? By treating, I mean boiling, adding chlorine, or some other treatment to remove bacteria and other contaminants.
     a. Yes (go to question 14)
     b. No (skip question 14 and go to question 15)
     c. Don’t know (skip question 14 and go to question 15)

15. How do you treat your drinking water?
     a. Boil
     b. Chlorine
     c. Filtration
     d. Brita or other filter system
     e. Ultraviolet light
     f. Ozone
     g. Other
     h. Don’t know

16. Do you currently treat the water you use for dental care, bathing, and other household uses? By treating, I mean boiling, adding chlorine, or some other treatment to remove bacteria and other contaminants.
     a. Yes (go to question 16)
     b. No (skip question 16 and go to question 17)
     c. Don’t know (skip question 16 and go to question 17)

17. How do you treat the water you use for dental care, bathing, and other household uses?
     a. Boil
     b. Chlorine
     c. Filtration
     d. Brita or other filter system
     e. Ultraviolet light
     f. Ozone
     g. Other
     h. Don’t know

18. How is your domestic sewage handled?
     a. Septic tank and weeping bed (i.e., field or leaching bed)
     b. Holding tank
     c. Other
     d. Don’t know

19. When was the last time you had the septic tank emptied?
     a. (month/year)
     b. Don’t know

20. Where is your septic tank located?
     a. [known distance]
     b. Close to water source
     c. Far from water source
     d. Don’t know

21. Do you or your neighbour(s) bordering your property currently house livestock on the property or have had livestock housed on this property in the past 12 months? This includes animals owned and/or cared for by your family or housed here and cared for by other people. Bordering as in sharing a fence line with you.
     a. Yes (Is it you or your neighbour(s)?)
     b. No
     c. Don’t know

22. Have you or your neighbour bordering your property stored manure (or waste activated sludge, sewage treatment plant sludge, sewage sludge) on your property, spread it on your fields, or used it to fertilize vegetable/flower gardens/fruit orchards in the past 12 months?
     a. Yes (Is it you or your neighbour(s)?)
     b. No
     c. Don’t know

23. Do you have questions that you would like to ask?

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Appendix III: Protocol for Student Public Health Inspectors

The student public health inspectors will follow the protocol for each of the households.
1. Follow-up with a telephone call and walk through the following script:
     a. Hi, my name is ______ from the Brant County Health Unit. We are currently looking at the status of wells in Brant, so that we could improve our health promotion efforts associated with private well water.
     b. Are you or is anyone available for me to visit to complete a short survey and have a quick look at your well? What is the best time for a 15-20min visit?
     c. Would you like us to test your water for bacteria (specifically E. coli and general bacterial growth) while we are on-site?
     d. Do you have any security measures that I should be aware of such as large dogs?

2. Household visits can take place between 9AM to 7PM Monday to Friday, or Saturday/Sunday at your discretion.
     a. If households cannot set-up a visit, see if they are okay with answering the survey via phone.

3. Complete the survey on the spreadsheet available. Be sure to have hard copies available should your tablet not work.

4. During you visit, follow these steps:
     a. Identify yourself and provide them with the purpose of your visit.
“Hi, my name is ______ from the Brant County Health Unit. We are currently looking at the status of wells in Brant, so that we could improve our health promotion efforts associated with private well water.”
     b. Ask them (again) if they would like to have their well water tested for bacteria (specifically E. coli and general bacterial growth). If so, follow the steps for taking a water sample by clearing the sink and turning on the tap to let cold water run.
     c. Ask the survey questions.
     d. Collect a water sample. Note the sample/registration number on the sample bottle to trace the results with the survey.
     e. Go outside and inspect their wells, superficially. Look for the following:
     i. Visual inspection of dug wells:

  • Check condition (e.g., cracked, broken) of the concrete well rings above ground.
  • Check condition of the lid (e.g., cracked, broken).
  • Make sure the ground is sloped away from the well.
  • Ensure that no manure or other potential contaminants are near the well.

     ii. Visual inspection of drilled wells:

  • Check the pipe above ground for cracks or deterioration.
  • Check if the lid is on the well and secured.
  • Make sure the ground is sloped away from the well.
  • Ensure that no manure or other potential contaminants are near the well.

     f. Ask them the best number to contact them with regarding the test results.
     g. Ask if they have any questions.

5. Call the household with the results if negative. Have a PHI for the area to call back if the results are negative in case a consult is required.

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Appendix IV: Breakdown of Data Sources

Below is the breakdown of surveys completed out of the total households contacted. A total of 321 surveys were completed: 113/256 (44.1%) from the list of people who previously tested; 8/811 (1.0%) from the Canada Post postcard mail out; 136/290 (46.9%) from the list of phone numbers registered with Canada Post; and 64 from other sources, such as online, bunkhouse inspections, and front desk requests.

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Tin Vo
Health Planner

519-753-4937 ext. 214
tin.vo@bchu.org