More than 2.5 million Pennsylvania residents rely on private wells for their drinking water. Yet these wells are not regulated, leaving homeowners to their own devices to test and treat their water.
Temple University researchers are recruiting rural and suburban families with private wells to better understand the impacts of drinking well water on children’s health. The scientists will study the correlation between microorganisms and bacteria in water and health problems such as norovirus and respiratory illness.
Researchers say the randomized controlled trial, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, is the first of its kind.
“Homeowners are left to their own devices to treat and test their own water quality,” said Heather Murphy, lead researcher and professor of epidemiology. “ I felt like that’s something that really needs to be addressed — and that’s inequitable access to water in what we call high-income countries, where everyone has a human right to clean water.”
The study is focused on neighborhoods in Pennsylvania in which septic and well systems are in close proximity to one another, as well as agricultural areas. Failing septic systems close to private wells, as well as some farming practices, can taint the ground water that enters peoples’ wells, said Murphy.
Studies dating back to the 1980s report septic systems can cause microbes to seep into groundwater. A 2020 study led by Temple evaluating the role septic systems and rainfall have on well water quality found human sewage at least once in every single well they tested. The study concluded that inadequate treatment and location of septic systems contributed to the contamination.
Runoff from poorly managed facilities at farms can carry pathogens such as bacteria and viruses, which could contaminate groundwater. In 2019, Mountaire Farms in Millsboro, Delaware settled with residents whose well water was contaminated with nitrates after the facility sprayed contaminated wastewater onto nearby fields.
Temple University plans to recruit about 900 children under 5 years old, and have signed up about 300 so far. Families will receive either a treatment system or a placebo device, which will help scientists evaluate the health risks of drinking untreated and contaminated well water. They will compare the health of the children in both groups over time.
At the end of the study, every family involved will receive a free treatment system, which normally costs about $1,000. Families are also eligible for other benefits, such as gift cards or a trip to Hershey Park.
In rural areas, connecting to municipal systems or other water supplies isn’t always feasible. Doing so can be cost-prohibitive, because it often involves working around existing utilities, digging up roadways and driveways, and retrofitting them.
Murphy hopes the study will urge public officials to provide residents greater access to treatment systems for their private wells.
“I’m hoping that we’re going to show evidence that private wells are a problem in the United States, and that there is a significant burden of disease attributable to consumption of untreated private well water,” Murphy said.
“My hope is that this evidence would start to move that political needle and start to provide resources for these rural, often underserved families to have information and access to treatment in some way — through subsidies or financial plans — to support these families.”
Temple will continue to recruit families through September 2025, and the study is expected to be complete in 2026.
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