By Karen R. Smith

Imagine 53 million Americans taking responsibility for the quality of their private well water…the difference in health, the improvement in the environment. Picture them attending to the quality of their well water the same way they maintain their automobiles—on a regular basis, by means of testing and inspection by trained experts.

That’s what Underwriters Laboratories imagines…and why they have created ULDrinkWell.

A new business for a respected entity
Perhaps no other testing entity is as well known, worldwide, as Underwriters Laboratories Inc. About 19 billion UL marks appear on products that we handle in our homes and workplaces. The independent, not-for-profit certification organization has tested products for public safety for more than a century.

In April 2001, UL added another laboratory to its family of companies with the purchase of Environmental Health Lab in South Bend, Indiana. That firm had a proud tradition of excellence in the testing of municipal water supplies. “In fact, this building has been testing water for 18 years now,“ explained Dan Carter of DrinkWell. “Nice for us, as a newer part of UL, to bring that tradition to DrinkWell.”

DrinkWell is a well water testing program that goes beyond other water testing services. Arranging for tests is easy on the web. Customers have access to a nurse call center that provides sources of information about water treatment options and trained support and counseling for water related issues.

Through UL’s continuing commitment to public education, DrinkWell will be marketed to those 53 million Americans who rely on private well water.

Municipal water is monitored in a host of ways through Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. Yet while that agency does issue guidance documents for private well owners, their recommendations are unenforceable. Private wells lie outside the protection of the EPA—or any other government entity—in 49 states. New Jersey is the first and only state to mandate private well water testing annually.

Is such testing necessary?
Many consumers, according to Carter, presume that the good taste of their well water is a sign of its purity and safety. However, a study performed in New Jersey after the Well Water Testing Act went into effect looked at 5,000 wells—and found 11 percent were contaminated; eight percent above EPA limits. “Those statistics motivated other states to look at creating the same legislation,” Carter said.

DrinkWell hopes to point out that much of that private well water may be at risk because of the physical location of the well, or due to activities in the immediate area. Visitors to the website ( can opt to take the QuickChoice Survey and by answering questions about their well’s location, determine the right kind of testing for their needs.

Raising consumer awareness
Many might quickly breeze through some of those questions—living within one mile of a pesticide/herbicide plant does not seem like it would apply to most residences. On the other hand, what about 250 feet from a septic field? Has the home ever been treated for termites? Is the deck or other structure made out of treated wood? In very short order, the customer begins to see that even their tasty well water might have been exposed to contaminants.

“There’s a sort of blindspot when it comes to well water, that somehow it comes from a safe, separate place under the ground. When really, everything in the area around it trickles through and enters that water,” Carter explained, noting that people who would never allow refuse of any kind near their wells may routinely use weed killers, chemical fertilizers and insecticides without a thought as to where the residue ends up.

If UL’s direct mail, magazine ads and on-line promotions succeed in raising Americans’ well water consciousness, water treatment professionals everywhere will also benefit. “We envision consumers using DrinkWell to learn their well water’s DNA—a complete, detailed diagram of what’s present. They will be able to take that report, go to their local water treatment professional and correct any problems discovered,” Carter said.

Selecting the test, taking the samples
The real difference between DrinkWell and other testing services is that the consumers have informed control of the process. After taking the survey, the website will recommend specific tests based on the answers. DrinkWell with volatiles, for example, tests for 53 contaminants including bacteria, metals, inorganics and volatile organic compounds, while DrinkWell with semivolatiles tests for 58 contaminants including bacteria, metals, inorganics and semi-volatile organic compounds which include pesticides, herbicides and industrial chemicals. Again based on the survey responses, the consumer may be given an option to purchase testing for additional compounds in conjunction with ordering one of the larger testing packages. Mercury and perchlorate are two such separately tested substances.

Once a consumer places a testing order on the website, they receive their testing kit by mail. About the size of a breadbox, the kit contains a hard-sided cooler filled with freezer ice packs and sealed test bottles. Simple instructions have the consumer freeze the packs overnight so they can take testing samples the following morning, add the frozen ice packs, reseal the original package and get the samples to DrinkWell. Testing is performed by degreed scientists with years of experience, which makes for a better understanding and interpretation of data and better judgment, according to Carter. Results are emailed to customers within a week as a rule, although a handful of analyses require longer time.

Understanding the results
Rather than follow the form of many traditional lab reports, UL created a final document designed to facilitate consumer understanding of the results of their well water testing. “We looked at what others were doing and found that most issued a five or six page report that read like a recipe list with no explanations of any kind…so consumers would see .005 barium, for example—and have no idea what that meant,” Carter summarized.

DrinkWell customers will see results in terms all Americans recognize: traffic lights. A red light symbol for a contaminant that poses a danger to health, for example, and amber(orange) for one that is aesthetic only. Once they receive their reports, consumers can contact the nurse call center for additional information. “What effect a particular finding has on infants, for example, is a common question we receive,” Carter said.

Pricing for DrinkWell testing is nationally competitive, and the new venture is already enjoying broad reach across the country. With the first flush of success, what does Carter imagine for the future? “We’d like to be the Johnny Appleseed of private well water testing,” he explained, adding that by getting the word out, 53 million well water drinkers will be healthier and safer.


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