Sources for more information and help are also listed. [Editing for clarity by DF are marked by brackets or italics] Initial Source: EPA 816-K-02-003 January 2002. Also see How To Spot Well Contamination Problems later in this article series.
Understanding and spotting possible pollution sources is important. It's the first step to safeguard drinking water for you and your
Some threats come from nature. Naturally occurring contaminants such as minerals can present a health risk. Other potential
sources come from past or present human activity - things that we do, make, and use such as mining, farming and using chemicals. Some of
these activities may result in the pollution of the water we drink.
Several sources of pollution are easy to spot by sight, taste, or smell. (See Quick Reference List.), however many serious problems can
only be found by testing your water. Knowing the possible threats in your area will help you decide on the kind of tests you need.
Visual Evidence of Water Contamination Problems
Sources of Visible Water Contaminatiom-like scale, stains, or floating dirt/debris
A rotten egg odor or sulphur odor in water can be from dissolved hydrogen sulfide gas or certain bacteria in your water.
A rotten egg or "sulphur odor" in drinking water may also come from the water heater and may be easy to fix. If the smell only comes with hot water it is likely from a part in your hot water heater. [The water heater's sacrificial anode, a rod sticking down into the water heater tank, is intended to reduce water tank corrosion and thus extend water tank life. But when the anode is badly corroded or dissolved itself, this condition can be a source of smelly water.
Check for this condition before doing something more expensive to address water odors. We most often notice this odor when the home has been unoccupied for some time and the water heater has become deteriorated. Key is that the odor is only noticed when running the hot water--DF]
A sulfurous smell or rotten egg smell may also be due to the combination of loss of oxygen in water (hypoxia), or low oxygen levels, combined with algae which feeds and then dies in rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, or even large areas such as the Gulf of Mexico where agricultural runoff in the Mississippi river results in high nitrogen levels in water entering the Gulf.
In 2008 the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico was reported by the New York Times as likely to form a smelly sulphur-smelling zone of roe than 8,500 square miles.
A detergent odor in water and water that foams when drawn could be seepage [into the well] from septic tanks [or other groundwater] into your water well.
A gasoline or oil smell in water indicates fuel oil or gasoline likely seeping from a tank into the water supply. [We found a property at which an owner was using an old "abandoned" drilled well casing to dispose of his used motor oil. This is an example of why it's a good idea to properly seal abandoned wells, making it unlikely that an un-used well will become a pipe for contaminants to be sent directly into the local aquifer--DF]
Methane gas or musty/earthy smell in water may be from decaying organic matter in water. [We've had reports, especially from mining areas such as portions of Pennsylvania in the U.S. in which underground methane was seeping into the well through rock fissures. One client could on occasion light gas coming from their kitchen faucet! Be careful, such conditions are dangerous and risk explosion or fire--DF] See METHANE GAS SOURCES for details about sources of methane gas in and around buildings and in the water supply or in wells.
Chlorine smell in water may be from excessive chlorination [or from improper or inadequate water treatment systems that have stopped filtering excessive chlorine in the post-processing step after using a chlorinator to kill bacteria in a water supply. -DF.]
Watch Out: Many serious problems (bacteria, heavy metals, nitrates, radon, and many chemicals) can only be found by laboratory testing of water.
WATER WELL PROTECTION & RESTORATION explains the importance of protecting a well from polluted groundwater, of protecting groundwater from accidental pollutaion through open wells, and also how to return a well to operation and use after area flooding.
WELL FLOOD DAMAGE REPAIR describes how flood waters can cause well and water system piping contamination and what to do about it before using well water after area flooding.
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 Salzman, James, Drinking Water: A History, Overlook (2012), ISBN-10: 1590207203, ISBN-13: 978-1590207208, Quoting product description:
In Drinking Water, Duke University professor and environmental policy expert James Salzman shows how drinking water highlights the most pressing issues of our time--from globalization and social justice to terrorism and climate change--and how humans have been wrestling with these problems for centuries. From the aqueducts of Rome to the revolutionary sewer system in nineteenth-century London to today’s state-of-the-art desalination plants, safety and scarcity of water have always been one of society’s most important functions.
 Soll, David, Empire of Water: An Environmental and Political History of the New York City Water Supply, Cornell University Press, (2013), ISBN-10: 0801449901, ISBN-13: 978-0801449901, Quoting: product review
"Empire of Water chronicles the fascinating story of New York City's water supply, which comes mostly from reservoirs in the Catskills and, remarkably, is unfiltered. That's because the city has spent billions of dollars and decades of effort working with residents, businesses, and governments in the Catskills to protect the reservoirs from pollution caused by runoff from roads, farms, and dairies. This meticulously researched and persuasively reasoned history explores the change in New York City’s attitude toward water, from indifference to profligate water waste and environmental pollution to stalwart champion of water conservation and protection. The best histories shed light on the past as they illuminate the present. Empire of Water is in this category. By protecting the ecosystem services provided by a pristine watershed in northern New York, the city avoided having to spend $8 billion to build a treatment plant. As we confront water shortages in the United States and across the world, Empire of Water teaches that business as usual—looking for new oases and relying on massive engineering solutions—no longer makes sense. We must acknowledge nature’s limits and work within them to secure a sustainable future for coming generations."—Robert Glennon, Regents’ Professor and Morris K. Udall Professor of Law and Public Policy, University of Arizona, author of Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It
 Mithen, Steven, Thirst: Water and Power in the Ancient World, Harvard University Press (2012), ASIN: B00EDZ5OHC. Quoting product review at Amazon:
Water is an endangered resource, imperiled by population growth, mega-urbanization, and climate change. Scientists project that by 2050, freshwater shortages will affect 75 percent of the global population. Steven Mithen puts our current crisis in historical context by exploring 10,000 years of humankind’s management of water. Thirst offers cautionary tales of civilizations defeated by the challenges of water control, as well as inspirational stories about how technological ingenuity has sustained communities in hostile environments.
... Mithen blends archaeology, current science, and ancient literature to give us a rich new picture of how our ancestors lived. Since the Neolithic Revolution, people have recognized water as a commodity and source of economic power and have manipulated its flow. History abounds with examples of ambitious water management projects and hydraulic engineering—from the Sumerians, whose mastery of canal building and irrigation led to their status as the first civilization, to the Nabataeans, who created a watery paradise in the desert city of Petra, to the Khmer, who built a massive inland sea at Angkor, visible from space.
As we search for modern solutions to today’s water crises, from the American Southwest to China, Mithen also looks for lessons in the past. He suggests that we follow one of the most unheeded pieces of advice to come down from ancient times. In the words of Li Bing, whose waterworks have irrigated the Sichuan Basin since 256 bc, “Work with nature, not against it.”
 Pabich, Wendy J., Taking on Water: How One Water Expert Challenged Her Inner Hypocrite, Reduced Her Water Footprint (Without Sacrificing a Toasty Shower), and Found Nirvana, Sasquatch Books (2012), ASIN: B00EB0JTB6, Quoting Amazon product review: When Wendy Pabich received a monthly water bill for 30,000 gallons (for a household of two people and one dog), she was chagrined. After all, she is an expert on sustainable water use. So she set out to make a change. Taking on Water is the story of the author's personal quest to extract and implement, from a dizzying soup of data and analysis, day-to-day solutions to reduce water use in her life. She sets out to examine the water footprint of the products she consumes, process her own wastewater onsite, revamp the water and energy systems in her home, and make appropriate choices in order to swim the swim. Part memoir, part investigation, part solution manual, the book is filled with ruminations on philosophy, science, facts, figures, and personal behavioral insights; metrics, both serious and humorous, to track progress; and guidelines for the general public for making small (or perhaps monumental) but important changes in their own lives.
"Death in the Gulf of Mexico", Editorial, New York Times, 4 August 2008
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