RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Drinking water from some wells in Wake County is leading to emergency rooms visits, according to a new University of North Carolina study that recommends expanding municipal water service.
Environmental sciences professor Jackie MacDonald Gibson and doctoral student Frank Stillo collected samples from wells across Wake County.
“We found that about two-thirds of the houses had bacterial contaminants at levels that wouldn’t be acceptable in a city water supply,” MacDonald Gibson said.
“These contaminants increase people’s risks of ending up in the emergency department with a severe intestinal illness.”
MacDonald Gibson said their research determined about 25 percent of the emergency room visits that are occurring for intestinal visits can be attributed to contaminated water.
She said many of those people don’t realize their wells may be a factor. She said if people had clean sources of water, such as the municipal lines for Raleigh and Wake County, they would be 25 percent less likely to land in the hospital for a serious intestinal illness.
The scientists also said the affected areas were historically African-American communities. MacDonald Gibson said Jim Crow-era decisions did not bring those neighborhoods into city limits, though they may have been surrounded on all sides. She said the efforts made by city officials decades ago to exclude black communities meant the people who lived there did not receive infrastructure items such as paved roads, lights, and public water.
“Absolutely no fault of the current county commission. This is a historical thing that went on a long time ago. There are a lot of these legacy communities around,” MacDonald Gibson said.
“Instead of people being served by a poorly served water utility and being at risk, we have people who’ve been excluded from a very well-run utility, and they’d be better off, in my view, if they had access to the municipal water supply,” she said.
“A nice, obvious solution would be to run the water lines to these houses, they’re usually very close to municipal water lines.”
One example she and Stillo found is an area near Eva Mae Drive between Old Poole Road and Six Siblings Circle. There are several new homes on Six Siblings Circle which all receive water from the city. The sidewalk and city limit ends about 50 feet away on Eva Mae Drive, and so does water service.
Nalson Diaz lives at the first house across the street from the dividing line. His house relies on water from a well, and he won’t drink the water that comes out of his faucet.
“You never can trust the water through the well. It’s coming through the ground. You don’t know what your grounds has got,” Diaz said.
He has a couple of filtration machines he uses for cooking or coffee, but he won’t drink the filtered water from the tap either. Instead he buys four cases of bottled water every two weeks.
Diaz had a contractor install pipes and a water meter in his yard a few years ago, and he hopes that someday the municipal system will connect to his line.
“My neighbor has got city water, and all this subdivision has got city water,” he said about the homes across the street on Six Siblings Circle.
“It’s incredible only one street is city, and the other side is county. That’s why everybody over here is on wells.”
The UNC researchers said they are aware of about 1,000 households in Wake County that use wells. MacDonald said those affect 3,500 people.
Wake County commissioners are also investigating issues with well water. The Board of Commissioners formed a Growth, Land Use and Environment (GLUE) Committee a few years ago.
County crews tested 209 wells between December 2012 and August 26,2016, and the GLUE Committee discussed its findings Monday. The county’s testing found nine wells with pesticide levels above federal contaminant or removal management levels, and 14 more that were above state standards but below federal standards.
Commissioner Matt Calabria said the board was aware of well water contamination in one neighborhood but expected others might also have issues.
“This can be a significant health concern for our residents so we felt like we needed to proactive in making sure that we address this issue and identified where contamination occurs,” Calabria said.
“We’ve seen a lot of carcinogens in the water, things that can have long-term health impacts on folks, and that’s something that we need to head off at the pass, so what we did was we created a funding mechanism so that we can provide people with drinking water alternatives.”
The county received funding from the Environmental Protection Agency to install filtration systems in some homes, and Calabria said the county will evaluate individual neighborhoods to find the best option for that area.
A neighborhood group for Colewood Acres and Trawick Dale petitioned the county for an extension of the main waterline to their homes.
“Sometimes they are close to a municipal water line and so that becomes the best and easiest and most cost-effective way of helping folks. Sometimes water filtration systems can work,” Calabria said.
“We want to find the best solution for our people, and by proactively looking at people’s circumstances and understanding the data, that’s what we can do.”
Commissioner John Burns, who serves as the chairman of the GLUE Committee, said the well water issue is a monumental challenge which will require a lot of testing and monitoring.
Burns, Calabria, and GLUE Committee vice chairman Sig Hutchinson all expressed interest in reading the results of the UNC study.
“The commission over the past couple of years has been working very proactively to address well water contamination issues. We know that there are issues out there, we’re working to try to fix them, but more information, whether from researchers or from residents or any source, is basically always better than less,” Calabria said.
“We want to know everything that we can to make intelligent decisions, so I welcome any information that researchers or others would develop.”
MacDonald Gibson said it is good to see the county taking steps such as the filtration systems, but she does not think it is a long-term remedy. She said the routine maintenance needed for household water can be difficult, and other UNC research found only one out of 20 homeowners tests their water on a regular basis. MacDonald Gibson said the county health department recommends annual testing.
She said her latest research was limited to primarily testing for bacteria, but she is working to testing for other contaminants such as lead. Recent tests of 27 homes found nine with high lead levels. However, she said this is not due to the pipeline infrastructure for the municipal water system, which she praised.
“This is like Flint inside out. There’s an excellent public utility that really does an excellent job managing corrosion in the system, and they’re very aggressive making sure people’s water is safe,” she said.
Diaz, the homeowner on the wrong side of the street for service, said he has one wish for the new year.
“Get city water. It’s better,” he said.
If it can’t happen, his wife wants to move to a neighborhood that doesn’t rely on wells.