By Kenneth Jenke

Summary: Nearly one in five Americans depends on wells for their source of potable water. With this in mind, a not-for-profit, third-party testing laboratory has launched a program to give private well owners an opportunity to test samples of their well water to determine if there are detectable levels of specified contaminants in their water.

An estimated 53 million Americans rely on water from private wells. While most of this water is safe to drink, groundwater contamination has been documented in all 50 states.1

For example:

  • In December 2000, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency tested wells in Lisle, Ill., and found nine wells with levels of trichloroethylene (TCE)* above the drinking water standard and another 28 wells with evidence of TCE present.2,4
  • In a 1986-99 occurrence study completed by the U.S. Geological Survey, samples were collected and analyzed for volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) from 1,926 rural, self-supplied domestic wells. Of these samples, 12 percent were found to have at least one VOC present at the level of 0.2 micrograins per liter (μg/L). These wells were found in 31 of 39 states that were part of this study. The top seven VOCs found during this study in order of decreasing occurrence were: trichloromethane, methyl-tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), tetracholoroethene (PCE), dichlorodifluoromethane, 1,1,1-trichloroethane, methylbenzene, and 1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane.3,4

* NOTE: TCE, which looks like water and has a sweet odor like chloroform, is used mainly in metal degreasing. It’s also used as a raw material to make other chemicals, as a cleaner in electronics manufacturing, and for all sorts of general solvent purposes such as in paints, paint strippers, and adhesives. In the past, it’s been used as a low-temperature refrigerant and as a grain fumigant, and is still sometimes used in dry cleaning. It’s no longer commonly used as a medical anesthetic gas. (SOURCE: California DHS).

Private wells don’t fall under the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) regulations, which pertain only to municipally supplied water sources. Private wells, therefore, aren’t required to be tested on a regular basis. Wells may become contaminated by a wide variety of human activities such as improper use of fertilizers, animal manures, herbicides, pesticides, improperly located or built septic systems, leaking underground storage tanks and piping, storm water drains as well as chemical spills at local industrial sites can pollute groundwater. Some wells are also vulnerable to natural contaminants such as arsenic and radon depending on the local geology.

Currently, it’s the responsibility of the individual well owner to ensure his water is safe for consumption; however, the cost of testing to requirements of the SDWA is prohibitive to most private well owners. One third-party testing laboratory, Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL) has launched a new “DrinkWell” program to address both concerns.

How the program works
The DrinkWell program gives private well owners an accurate, affordable way to test their well water for a wide variety of contaminants. While the majority of current private wells go untested, limited testing is sometimes performed for total coliform and/or nitrates to comply with local requirements at the time the well is installed or time of property transfer. These tests are important, but they won’t tell well owners if they have other types of contaminants such as chemicals like arsenic and TCE. Furthermore, the frequency of testing may be too low and a well owner could use their water for several years without knowing if contamination exists.

The well program has been designed to provide affordable data to private well owners on a wide range of potential contaminants that are regulated under the SDWA for those on municipally supplied water. Private well owners can access the program through a new website, The website provides well owners with an online survey (see EXTRA) to help them determine an appropriate testing package based on their local conditions. After taking the survey, test packages and optional tests are available for the consumer to order online and directly from the catalog. An easy-to-use sampling kit for the requested analyses is shipped to their home and, after completion of sampling, the consumer ships the sampling kit to UL’s Water Quality Lab in South Bend, Ind., for analysis. Each kit has easy-to-use directions for water sampling based on which tests are ordered to ensure sample integrity. These steps include how to pack the box after sampling, how to use the freezer packs, how to collect the sample, and also safety instructions.

Upon completion of the analysis, the laboratory will email or mail the consumer a comprehensive report. Most reports will be available to the consumer in seven days. The report includes results of the analyses of the water sample for specified contaminants that were chosen by the consumer, and notify the consumer if any of the analytes tested are above the maximum contaminant level (MCL) set forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). This report will direct the consumer to a website with a list of drinking water treatment systems, which have been certified by the laboratory to comply with appropriate national standards. These systems will be listed by the manufacturer name and indicate which contaminants they reduce. The consumer will also be guided to contact the USEPA’s safe drinking water site, their local county health department and a local drinking water treatment professional. The consumer will also have access to a call center operated by Memorial Health Systems that’s staffed by nurses trained on water-related health issues.

This private well testing program was launched in April. It was developed to serve the more than 50 million Americans who use a private well system for the consumption of drinking water. The program will use the third-party testing laboratory’s expertise in drinking water analysis to provide families with private well water testing and a list of certified drinking water treatment units to help the consumer make an informed decision on water treatment systems.


  1.  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), “Analysis and Findings of the Gallop Organization’s Drinking Water Customer Satisfaction Survey EPA 816-K-03-005,” August 2003.
  2. Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, “Investigation into Well Contamination Continuing,” Environmental Progress – Winter 2000.
  3. U.S. Geological Survey, “Occurrence and Status of Volatile Organic Compounds in Ground Water from Rural, Untreated, Self-Supplied Domestic Wells in the United States, 1986-99,” Water Resources Investigations Report 02-4085.
  4. USEPA, “List of Drinking Water Contaminants & MCLs,” website:

About the author
Kenneth Jenke is senior project chemist working in the area of certification of drinking water treatment units for Underwriters Laboratories Inc., of Northbrook, Ill. He holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Western Illinois University. Jenke can be reached at (847) 664-2656 or email: [email protected]. For more information on UL’s DrinkWellä program, visit

EXTRA: Quick Survey for Well Program
The following questions are among those that will help pinpoint potential problems with a well owner’s water quality:

  1. What is your water source (well, spring or lake)?
  2. Is your well located within one mile of any of the following? Examples are a gas station, cemetery, dry cleaners, golf course, farm, etc.
  3. Is your home located within 250 feet of the following¾septic tank, petroleum tanks, and manure stacks?
  4. Has your house been treated for termites?
  5. What type of plumbing do you have?
  6. Is the age of your well greater than 30 years?
  7. Does your water exhibit any of the following¾salty taste, bitter taste, blue-green staining?
  8. Do you use or have pesticides or herbicides around your home?

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