In Nebraska, along the Platte River, it’s uranium. In Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, it’s arsenic. In California, boron. And in the Texas Panhandle, lithium.
Throughout the nation, metals and other elements are tainting private drinking water wells at concentrations that pose a health concern.
For one element – manganese – contamination is so widespread that water wells with excessive levels are found in all but just a few states. Arsenic, too, is a national problem, scattered in every region.
In the first national effort to monitor wells for two dozen trace elements, geologists have discovered that 13 percent of untreated drinking water contains at least one element at a concentration that exceeds federal health regulations or guidelines. That rate far outpaces other contaminants in well water, including industrial chemicals and pesticides.
For public wells, the discovery is less of a concern, since water suppliers regularly test for contaminants and remove them to comply with federal standards. The most troubling finding involves the widespread contamination of private wells, which are unmonitored and unregulated.
“It was a bit surprising how many of these trace elements had exceedances of human health benchmarks, especially compared to other contaminants we are often concerned about,” said Joseph Ayotte, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, which conducted the research. “The findings certainly underscore the message we hear from the public health agencies, that everyone should test their wells for a suite of trace elements.”