Glenburn farmer Daniel Bell always assumed the clear, fresh water from his private well was perfectly safe. Then early this year after having what he thought would be routine lab tests run in connection with treatment for an injury, he was diagnosed with kidney issues.

The cause was traced to long term exposure to a harmful strain of bacteria in his well water.

“Regular physical workup was done which included blood tests to look for the normal stuff [like] cholesterol, vitamin levels, liver and kidney function,” Bell, who is 55, said. “Well, to my surprise they found decreased kidney function. Now mind you, other than being a smoker I’ve always been in great health so there was no reason at all to have kidney issues.”

Five months earlier, the well on his Wing-N-It Farm had been tested and the results showed the presence of coliform bacterias. After his kidney diagnosis, Bell got to thinking about those bacteria and anecdotal information he’d seen about some specific risks associated with specific strains.

His subsequent research helped him form a theory to connect the dots. His water contained a specific strain of E. coli that can have serious long term effects including renal failure. So he called his doctor and told her what he’d found. When he told her what his well tests had shown, she agreed his kidney issues were a result of the contaminated water.

A chicken hangs out on Farmer Daniel Bell’s shoulder while he is being interviewed at Wing-N-It Farm in Glenburn on Feb. 16. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Bell is now working with his medical provider on his treatment protocol. He’s also traded his well water for bottled water when drinking. He said recent screenings have shown his kidneys are starting to recover. But he wants his experience to serve as a cautionary tale for anyone with a private well and he urges well owners to get them tested.

“I’m a huge water drinker,” Bell said. “I have been drinking this water for years .”

According to Maine’s top well water official, there are a whole host of things that can be lurking in your well capable of making you sick. That’s why it’s important to get your well water tested on a regular basis, even if your water looks, smells and tastes fine.

The health issues

The damage to Bell’s kidneys is an extreme example of what can happen when you drink contaminated well water, according to Matthew DeRosby, physician assistant with Northern Light Primary Care in Brewer. The most common health issues associated with drinking water containing E. coli are intestinal problems including vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea. But strains of the bacteria can also cause urinary tract infections, a form of meningitis and pneumonia.

The culprits behind all these health issues are different strains of coliform bacteria that can get into well water. Coliforms are a very large group of naturally occurring bacteria, most of which are quite benign. But finding them in your well water is a bit like a canary in the coal mine, according to DeRosby, as they are an indicator that specific strains of harmful bacteria are likely present which can be detected with further testing.

“Mr. Bell got lucky the kidney issues were caught in his bloodwork,” DeRosby said. “There is only a certain strain of E. coli that causes kidney damage.”

Farmer Daniel Bell points to his snow-covered well at his home in Glenburn on Feb. 16. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

What are the tests?

So what can you do to protect your household from contaminated well water? Get regular water tests.

To do so, you’ll need to find a lab in Maine that does the testing, such as the Maine Center for Disease Control’s list of certified water testing labs in the state. Then contact the lab and order the test kit. When the kit arrives, it will contain sterile bottles and instructions on how to fill them with water from your household faucets.

In Maine, there are three levels of recommended testing performed at different intervals. Every year, your well should have a basic safety test that will look for bacteria and nitrates. Depending on which lab you use, a basic safety test will cost between $30 and $60.

Every five years, a standard water test should also be conducted. That looks for chemicals like arsenic, lead, iron, uranium and pH levels in addition to bacteria. That test will cost between $70 and $120.

Also every five years, you should have a test run for radon in both your well water and in the air of your home. Radon tests cost between $60 and $80.

Regular testing, according to Haig Brochu, private well technical assistance coordinator with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, will tell you if harmful bacteria, chemicals or gasses have found their way into your water source. Once you know if you have a problem, you can take steps to make sure your water is safe to drink.

Why test on a regular basis

Regular testing is needed to examine environmental changes to your well water. Why? Your well gets its water from a number of sources including groundwater in bedrock and rainwater. According to Brochu, each of those sources is capable of transporting contaminates into your well.

Most of the time those contaminants are naturally filtered out as the water travels through soil, sand and rock from its source to your well. But over time conditions can change and those natural filtering systems can break down.

If you have a drilled well properly lined with plastic casing, you are already drawing water from deep below the surface. That means your water has gone through extensive natural filtration before it gets into your well. But if your well casings develop tiny cracks or separate at the seams near the surface, there is a risk of unfiltered water seeping in with contaminants.

Dug wells are more problematic, according to Brochu. They tend to be shallow and pull water directly from the surface before it can go through any natural filtration. In addition, dug wells often do not have well-sealed caps so anything from ants to large rodents can get in and bring a host of contaminants along with them.

“I’ve been doing this 25 years and have seen it all in dug wells,” Brochu said. “I’ve seen mice, squirrels, chipmunks and in one case a woodchuck had pushed a cover off a dug well and fell inside and drowned.”

The variety of chickens that live at Wing-N-It Farm in Glenburn are pictured on Feb. 16. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Finding a solution

When your test results are returned, they will show either positives or negatives for the contaminants tested for. If you have positives, the next step is figuring out how contaminants are getting in and determining if you can stop them.

If the issue is due to a one-time occurence, like a rush of water due to a major rain event that overwhelmed the natural filtration, you can disinfect your well using bleach.

In some cases Brochu said specialized cameras can be dropped into drilled wells to inspect for cracks or damaged seams. If any are found, a well driller can be called in to repair or replace the casings. Sometimes though, the causes are more serious and may need a bigger fix like having a new well drilled.

When Bell found out his well had contaminates, he immediately used bleach to disinfect it. However, followup testing indicated harmful bacteria was still present.

“Now we have to repeat the [disinfectant] process,” Bell said. “If that does not work, it most likely means there is an issue with the well and it could be the pipe or casing.”

Cautionary tale

Bell hopes his experiences serve as a warning to others on private wells.

“We do so many things on a homestead and for me and many others we tend to overlook the simplest things,” Bell said. “Sometimes the effects of not doing things can be severe.”

DeRosby said anyone with a well needs to be consistent with testing.

“There is really no reason to not test your well every year for bacteria,” DeRosby said. “Testing for and finding those coliform bacteria does not mean you have the harmful bacteria, but it does raise that red flag so you can take steps to screen your water further for things that can make you sick.”

Correction: The name Haig Brochu was misspelled in the original version of this story.

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.