The Quality of My Well Water
Whether water that is intended for consumption comes from a surface well or a cased well (commonly known as an "artesian well"), it must be of good quality and meet the standards set out in the Regulation respecting the quality of drinking water (Q-2, r.40). Under section 3 of the regulation, owners must provide their families and visitors with safe drinking water.
While well water may appear to be clear and pure, and have no specific odor or taste, it may contain elements that can have undesirable effects on health, for example pathogenic micro-organisms (bacteria, viruses, or protozoa) and nitrates/nitrites.
Groundwater, which is generally of better quality than surface water (lakes, rivers, streams) owing to the soil’s natural filtering capacity, may be vulnerable to contamination, and precautions must be taken to ensure a supply of good quality water at all times.
A contamination event can occur sporadically and the only way it can be detected is by analyzing the water. The Ministère therefore recommends that you have your water analyzed by an accredited laboratory:
Additional tests should be performed if you notice sudden changes in the water’s taste, odor, or appearance or if changes have been made to the well or surrounding soil.
Water analysis alone is not enough to guarantee the quality of your drinking water. In addition to the recommended analyses, you must regularly check the condition of your well and septic facilities, examine possible sources of contamination in the well’s environment and make the appropriate corrections.
The majority of pathogenic micro-organisms (potentially disease-causing viruses, bacteria or protozoa) that are likely to be found in water come from human and animal excrements. As it is technically impossible to analyze all pathogens, we use microbiological indicators that in themselves are harmless: E. coli bacteria, enterococcal bacteria, and total coliform bacteria.
E. coli bacteria are very abundant in the bowel flora of humans and animals, and this is the only species that is strictly fecal in origin. E. coli bacteria are considered to be the best indicator of fecal contamination. Their presence in water means that it has been contaminated by pollution of fecal origin and that it may contain pathogenic microorganisms.
Gastroenteritis is the illness most commonly associated with drinking water contaminated with fecal matter. While this disease is often minor, it may occasionally have very serious consequences on a person’s health. Other rarer diseases such as hepatitis or meningitis may also result from the ingestion of contaminated water. This risk concerns not only the members of a family who drink well water, but also all their visitors.
Enterococcal bacteria are less abundant in the bowel flora of humans and animals than E. coli bacteria, and some species are not of fecal origin. The detection of enterococcal bacteria in well water may indicate fecal contamination or infiltration of surface water. However, it is best to play it safe and consider the presence of enterococcal bacteria as an indicator of fecal contamination.
Total coliforms form a heterogeneous group of bacteria of fecal and environmental origin. Indeed, most of the species may be naturally occurring in the soil and in vegetation. Their presence in water does not generally indicate fecal contamination or a health risk, but rather a deterioration of the bacterial quality of the water. This deterioration may be attributed among other things to the infiltration of surface water in the well, or the gradual growth of a layer of bacteria on the walls, called a biofilm. The analysis of total coliforms makes it possible to obtain information on the potential vulnerability of a well to surface pollution.
Drinking water must be free of any trace of E. coli or enterococcal bacteria. When either type of bacteria is detected, it is essential that you boil the water for at least one minute before consuming it, obtain drinking water from a public water system, or buy bottled water. You must also use boiled water to make ice cubes, prepare drinks and food for babies, wash food that will be eaten raw, and brush your teeth. You can continue using the well water to shower or bathe (being careful to avoid swallowing it), but you should give children and babies a sponge bath. These recommendations must be followed until subsequent tests show that the water complies with applicable standards.
It is recommended that you determine the source of fecal contamination and take the appropriate remedial measures, if possible. A shock treatment to disinfect the well may be necessary, particularly if the contamination is caused by special circumstances (a thaw, abundant rain, etc.). Since shock treatment can damage water treatment equipment, it is recommended that you disconnect your equipment, if this applies, before starting the procedure.
Take the following steps to disinfect a well:
The presence of total coliforms makes it even more important to conduct regular tests and take appropriate remedial measures to prevent any eventual fecal contamination. If new tests confirm the presence of total coliforms in concentrations exceeding the standards (above 10 ufc/100 ml), it is recommended that you give the well a shock treatment (disinfection).
It is important to identify the source of contamination and take appropriate remedial measures to improve the long-term quality of the water. There may be many local sources of contamination:
In such cases, work should be undertaken to correct the situation or bring it to the attention of the person responsible for the source of contamination. Anyone confronted with a contamination problem can get in touch with the appropriate municipal official, who will help find a solution. Additional water tests should be done to check if the measures taken were effective.
It is recommended that you use 50 mg/l of free chlorine to disinfect an existing well (use 5% fragrance free bleach available in stores). To disinfect a new well, multiply the amount of bleach by five as the recommended concentration is 250 mg/l of free chlorine.
The tables below will help you determine the quantity to use according to the diameter and depth of your well.
Quantity required for a surface well
Surface wells are generally made of superimposed concrete pipes over 600 millimeters in diameter. They are rarely more than 9 meters deep.
Quantity required for a cased or artesian well
Cased wells are drilled when the groundwater is deep or the surface is rocky. They are generally made of steel pipe less than 80 millimeters in diameter and over 6 meters long.
The main sources of nitrates/nitrites are agricultural fertilizers, manure, household wastewater, and the decomposition of plant and animal organisms. Because they find their way into surface and groundwater through rain and melting snow, infiltration is greatest in the spring and fall.
Presence of nitrates/nitrites in my water
Over 5 mg/l
A nitrate/nitrite concentration over 5 mg/l in a well generally indicates the influence of agricultural activities and calls for testing of this parameter at least twice a year, as concentrations can increase over time.
Over 10 mg/l
If the concentration of nitrates/nitrites detected in the water exceeds the standard set out in the Regulation respecting the quality of drinking water, namely 10 mg/l, this water must not be used to prepare food for infants or pregnant women. Wherever possible, the general public must also avoid regularly consuming water whose nitrate/nitrite concentration exceeds the set standard. For more information on the applicable recommendations, those concerned are invited to contact their regional public health office (French).
Identifying the source of contamination
It is important to identify the source of contamination and carry out the necessary work. The contamination may be caused by the spreading of manure or chemical fertilizers near the well, or by nearby septic facilities. You can contact a representative of the regional office of Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et des Parcs in your area to help you find an appropriate solution.
If all the aforementioned steps do not resolve the problem, it is still possible to obtain good quality water by installing one or more treatment devices specially designed to eliminate the problems revealed by the test results. Régie du bâtiment du Québec determines the requirements as to the type of treatment devices that can be installed in homes (French). To select the appropriate system, you can contact a firm specializing in water treatment. Products certified according to NSF/ANSI standards are recognized as effective in meeting the quality criteria. It is essential that such treatment systems be installed by a qualified professional, and used and maintained according the manufacturer’s recommendations.
To have your well water tested, it is recommended that you call on one of the laboratories accredited by the Ministère. The full list of accredited laboratories is updated regularly on the Ministère website. The laboratory will immediately notify the well owner if the water quality does not meet the established standards.
In addition to analysis of the aforementioned parameters, analysis of other parameters (hydrocarbons, solvents, pesticides, etc.) may be in order if pollution-generating activities are suspected in your area.
Adequate sampling methods are essential to ensure the validity of results. For more details, you can consult the division IV of Regulation respecting the quality of drinking water
It is generally recommended that you report any test results indicating that a chemical standard has been exceeded to the public health office in your area to obtain advice on water intended for human consumption. The contact information of the public health offices is available at the following Web address: http://publications.msss.gouv.qc.ca/acrobat/f/documentation/preventioncontrole/14-268-02W.pdf.information center or the regional office in your area.