Well Water Poisoning Symptoms & Treatment (Arsenic in Well Water)

Well water poisoning is a relative term. Unless private drinking well has been poisoned with a toxic substance with malicious intent, well water poisoning is mostly referred to as arsenic contamination in water. Arsenic can be a fatal contaminant with severe health impacts.

In this article, we will discuss everything you need to know about arsenic in your well. We aim to help you make your water arsenic-free so that you can drink water without any worries.

What is Arsenic?

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) states that arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is found in the earth’s crust.  It occurs in air, land, and soil. Arsenic exists in organic and inorganic forms.

Organic Arsenic – It is commonly found in foods such as fish and shellfish. It is less harmful compared to inorganic arsenic. Organic arsenic is formed when arsenic is combined with carbon.

Inorganic Arsenic – It is commonly found in water, rice, and cereal grains. Inorganic arsenic is formed when arsenic combines with metals and elements other than carbon.

How does Arsenic get into Well Water?

As we just stated that arsenic is found underground; it can leach into your well through seeping. Private wells and other underground water sources are more prone to arsenic contamination as compared to surface water sources such as lakes, rivers, and water reservoirs. Arsenic is found in underground rocks and soils, pesticides and insecticides, wood preservatives, and tobacco.

When water moves over rocks and underground formations, arsenic is dissolved in water and is then pumped to your home. CDC states that thousands of pounds of arsenic are released as industrial waste, and it stays in our environment for a very long time. Arsenic in the air is only settled when it rains, snow or arsenic gets a lot of time to settle down.

High levels of arsenic in private drinking wells are also a result of industrial waste or improper well construction. Frequent use of arsenic-rich fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides can also be the reason for arsenic in well water.

Arsenic Symptoms

Arsenic will not impart any color, taste, or smell to your drinking water. Hence, you cannot guess its presence. The only and best way to know about arsenic in your water is a water test. EPA and almost all the states recommend that a test for arsenic must be performed when a well is built, deepened, modified, or relocated.

If arsenic was not found in your water, it is likely that your well would not be contaminated with arsenic soon. However, a 10-year test is suggested for peace of mind and reconfirmation. If arsenic is found in your water, it is advised that you perform a re-test after six months. A report published by the Private Well Protection Arsenic Study group found out that arsenic levels may increase or decreases in 6-12 months after well construction.

Maximum Contamination Standards

EPA has reduced the MCL standard of 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb in 2001. It is equivalent to 10 micrograms per liter (µg/L). The important thing to consider here is that continuous exposure to low arsenic levels in drinking water can be harmful. Hence, your aim must be to eliminate arsenic from your water. EPA has set the goal of 0 ppb of arsenic in drinking water.

Read more: Methods to Raise PH in Well Water

Health Risks Associated with Arsenic in Drinking Water

A study by NIEHS states that arsenic affects the following organs and systems in the human body.

  • Skin
  • Nervous system
  • Respiratory system
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Liver, kidney, bladder, and prostate
  • Immune system
  • Endocrine system
  • Development system
  • Diabetes
  • Lungs and liver cancer
  • Respiratory diseases
  • Slow brain development in children

The health impacts of arsenic may take years to develop. The problem with arsenic is that you may ignore its presence in a little amount, and it will be hurting your health at the same time. Arsenic is very dangerous for the health of toddlers and infants. It is also extremely harmful to pregnant women. The severity of the above health effects is based on dose (amount of arsenic being ingested), duration (time of exposures), type of arsenic (organic or inorganic), general physical health, age, lifestyle, diet, and immunity.

Short term exposure to high levels of arsenic in drinking water can lead to stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness. It may cause sudden death if the exposure is not stopped.

Arsenic Treatment

For private well users, the following water treatment options have been suggested by the Minnesota Department of Health.

Reverse Osmosis system for well water

Reverse Osmosis – When it comes to controlling contaminants like arsenic, a RO filter is one of the best options. An RO filter comes with 4-5 different filtration stages. The main filtration stage is the RO membrane, which uses a fine and tiny membrane with size as small as 0.0001 microns. When water passes through this membrane, every contaminant is removed from the water. RO filters are 99% effective in removing arsenic and other contaminants from the water.

RO filters are the point of use water systems that are mostly installed in the kitchen and used to obtain water for drinking and cooking purposes. RO filters need regular backwashing and waste some water with every backwash cycle. You have to arrange a drainage pipe for RO filters. They require regular maintenance and filter replacement.The frequency of filter replacement depends upon the incoming water quality and volume of water passing through them. RO filter is an all-in-all filtering solution.

arsenic treatment

Adsorptive Media – It is a granular media. The water is made to pass through it, and it catches arsenic. The common types of adsorptive media used for arsenic removal are activated alumina and iron oxide. They can be installed as a point of entry (whole house) or point of use.

Adsorptive media filters are 95% effective in removing arsenic from well water. Its effectiveness is also influenced by the quality of raw water and arsenic concentration in water.

Adsorptive media filters may need a pre-sediment filter to ensure proper working. Just like an RO filter, adsorptive media filters also need backwashing and filtration media replacement. POE adsorptive media filters are costly and may cost you up to $2000.

However, a point of use system is inexpensive and easily affordable. Their maintenance is also cheap. The discharge water must be disposed of carefully as you don’t want it to enter the water table again and pollute your well. If your well water contains excessive iron, you should install an arsenic adsorptive filter after the iron filter.

well water treatment

Ion Exchange – Ion exchange technology can also be used to remove arsenic from your well water. Arsenic removal is achieved by continuously passing water under pressure at high speed through the water softener. Negative arsenic is captured by the sodium or potassium ions in the softener salt.

The resin is then washed by regular backwashing. The water produced from a water softener is soft and is rich in sodium or potassium. If you are planning to use a water softener for arsenic removal, make proper arrangements for drainage. People on a low sodium diet must not drink water from a water softener.

Distillation – Arsenic’s boiling point is higher than water. When water is distilled, the steam rising from the boiling container is cooled and turned back into the water. Arsenic stays in the boiling pot, and the resulting water is arsenic-free. Distillation is a complex process, and setting it up at your home will need a lot of investment, time, and energy. It is often used industrially to get pure water.

Ozone and Filtration – When ozone (O3) is passed through the water with the help of an electric injector, it solidifies the contaminants in the water. These contaminants can then be removed using a sediment filter. Ozone is used to disinfect water. Ozonation and filtration technique is 98% effective. It is a costly method and requires frequent maintenance.

Oxidation Filters – Oxidation filters can also be used to remove arsenic from water. Arsenic is oxidized and is then removed using a filter. Oxidation filters are commonly used to remove iron from well water.

What Not to Use?

Boiling and chlorination will not remove arsenic from well water. Arsenic’s boiling point is higher than water so that it will stay in the boiling container. Chlorination is used to disinfect water. It does not have the potential to remove arsenic or other contaminants from water.

Other Ways to Drink Arsenic Free Water

It may happen that arsenic concentration in water is beyond control, and all the treatment methods may fail. In such situations, you can do the following.

Dug a New Well – Digging a new well will help solve the arsenic problem. It is an ideal solution to adopt when you are already planning to build a new well because of other contaminants or water running out. A new well will be less costly in the long run than maintaining a water treatment system. However, there is always the risk of arsenic contamination in the new well.

Bottled Water – Another way to get rid of arsenic is to use bottled water for drinking and cooking purposes. If you plan to go for bottled water, make sure you check the company’s reputation and ask them for a water quality report from a state-approved testing facility.

Public Water System – You can also connect your home to a city water system or a public water system. EPA regulates city water systems. It ensures that the level of arsenic and other contaminants are below the MCLs. The only issue with this system is that you have to pay monthly water bills. You may also have to wait for some years before you can get a public water supply connection.

Can I use Arsenic Water for Other Purposes?

Yes, you can use arsenic-rich water for other purposes such as washing dishes, clothes, bathing, watering plants, and trees. The reason is that your skin does not absorb arsenic unless it is present in very high concentrations. If your water has arsenic around 500 µg/L, you must stop using it immediately.

How can I Reduce Arsenic Exposure?

Apart from eliminating arsenic in drinking water, it is also very important to limit arsenic exposure around you. You can adopt the following changes in lifestyle to reduce arsenic exposure.

  • Limit consumption of rice, cereal grains, and other foods which contain arsenic
  • Avoid burning wood treated with arsenic.
  • Check out the ingredients in medicines.
  • Keep the arsenic-treated wood sealed.
  • Keep the children away from known sources of arsenic.
  • Always wash and peel underground vegetables before peeling.
  • Never used old pesticides and soil supplements with arsenic.

Final Words

If you have found arsenic in well water, treating it must be your priority. Apart from arsenic, you must be careful about microorganisms such as bacteria, nitrates, lead, manganese, and other contaminants in drinking water. The best way to deal with a contaminated well is to get your water tested and install a filter that can provide holistic protection.

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