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REF NO.: 208

SUBJECT: Memorial University report and presentation about water safety shines light down provincial wells
DATE: June 19, 2012

                Provincial regulations govern safety testing and monitoring for municipal water sources, but what about private wells in more remote communities? Such is the subject of a recent Harris Centre – RBC Water Research and Outreach Fund project and upcoming Synergy Session presentation by Dr. Atanu Sarkar, an assistant professor with Memorial’s Division of Community Health and Humanities, Faculty of Medicine.
On Tuesday, June 26, at 10 a.m., Dr. Sarkar will present the findings of his research at a public session at Memorial’s Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook (Room 328, Arts and Science building). A live webcast will also be available. All are welcome to attend. To register for the session or the webcast, please contact Johan Joensen at johan.joensen@mun.ca or call 709-864-8418.
According to Dr. Sarkar, nearly a quarter of the population of the province relies on private wells, either dug or drilled, for drinking and household water. However, unlike municipal systems, there is no provincial legislation regulating the regular monitoring of this untreated groundwater. 
Dr. Sarkar’s study, focusing on the west coast of the island portion of the province, helps to address both a lack of information about the levels of contaminants in groundwater sources, along with questions related to local people’s perceptions about water quality, safe monitoring and the health risks of untreated water.
“Limited services are available to assist homeowners with wells to monitor the quality of their tap water,” explained Dr. Sarkar. “What’s more, over the course of this study, we realized that many of the people drinking the water aren’t aware of the potential risks of untreated water supplies.”
The study area included seven communities on the west coast. Researchers collected and tested water samples for microbial and chemical parameters, and cross referenced geological data of arsenic, fluoride and uranium belts in the area with well locations to identify wells that might be prone to contamination.
From a public health perspective, the study’s results were significant. More than one fourth of drilled wells and around three quarters of dug wells were contaminated with total coliforms, bacteria that are used as indicators of fecal contaminants in drinking water. Although total coliform does not pose immediate health threats, its presence indicates potential pathways for serious contamination in the future depending on external factors such as flooding or leaky septic and fuel tanks. Some were also contaminated by fecal coliforms, which pose immediate and significant health risks to homeowners.
Presence of both total and fecal coliforms is not acceptable according to current provincial health authority guidelines. There were also a few wells that had elevated levels of arsenic and fluoride. If these figures are adjusted to reflect the population of the whole province, the number of people at risk would be significant.
Dr. Sarkar and his team, including co-investigators Dr. Mano Krishnapillai and Dr. James Valcour, also measured the perceptions and beliefs of the people whose water was tested.
“Many people in the test communities are not interested in having chlorinated water,” Dr. Sarkar explained. “Before testing they told us that they didn’t believe their water had negatively impacted their health. The study was eye opening for the communities – many realized the importance of regular monitoring of water and proper maintenance of wells.”
While Dr. Sarkar doesn’t believe that provision of a public water supply to these communities is an immediate, feasible option, he does believe that more regular testing and better public health knowledge related to untreated drinking water is essential. As part of the study, his team contacted community members by phone to explain the results of the tests and offer suggestions on future monitoring.

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