Private Water Wells Commonly Contaminated in Canada

March 31, 2010

Private water wells in seemingly bucolic rural settings are often perceived as a source of clean water. That is far from true in Canada, where about 10-12% of the population relies on private water sources, according to a University of Alberta researcher who published his findings online March 15, 2010, in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Charrois researched previous studies and concluded that microbial pathogens pose the biggest risk, with chemical contamination also significant in some settings. There is little regulation of private wells, although utility and government officials can provide guidance when asked.

A similar regulatory situation and contamination problem exists in the US and portions of Europe, although Charrois says Scotland has a better approach, using an integrated management strategy that includes risk assessment.

In Canada, some of the findings were:

  • About 2/3 of infectious disease outbreaks that occurred over a 27-year period were linked with private or semi-private water supplies.
  • 40% of farmstead wells in Ontario had at least one contaminant above its standard in effect at the time of a 1991-1992 study.
  • 35% of Saskatchewan wells surveyed in a study exceeded at least one contaminant standard, and 99.6% exceeded an aesthetic or health objective.
  • 65% of Canadians using private or semi-private water supplies, and 92% of Ontario residents, did not have their water tested at the recommended intervals. Cost, lack of information, and inconvenience were noted as primary obstacles.

The author's recommendations include improvements in government efforts to educate private well users about the risks and their responsibilities, government financial assistance, and education of doctors to look for related problems.

Check with provincial, territorial, or local governments to see how they manage these situations.

Similar inquiries in the US likely will unearth important stories. Two good starting points are the TipSheets of March 18, 2009; and Nov. 26, 2008.