Contaminated drinking water may stretch beyond eastern Wake County private wells

The number of private wells that may be contaminated with radiological chemicals extends beyond eastern Wake County and the 19,000 households the county began to notify this week.

The underground granite that causes the contamination extends into most of Franklin County, portions of Nash, Vance and Warren counties and a portion of Johnston County, just north of Clayton.

And some Wake County residents who are not listed in the “affected area” may have unhealthy levels of uranium, radon and radium in their drinking water.

Wake County began notifying 19,000 private well owners in the eastern half of the county this week with mailers and community meetings. Mass notification began after several wells were tested and had unhealthy levels of radiological chemicals. One in five wells, or between 4,000 and 6,000, are likely to have unhealthy level of the chemicals, according to the county.

Wake County officials urged people who live in an “affected area” to get their wells tested.

But Evan Kane, the county’s groundwater protection and wells manager, told concerned residents Monday night at a Rolesville community meeting that if they live outside, but near, the affected area and have private wells they should also get their water tested.

Residents can find out if they are near an affected area, which takes up the eastern half of the county, by visiting wakegov.com/wells or calling 919-893-WELL (9355).

‘Outside of that danger area’

Francesca Scott and her family bought their home near Wake Forest less than a year ago. Their real estate agent recommended they get their well tested to cover the basics. The tests all came back fine.

Her parents got their well tested and told her about the chances of uranium, radon and radium appearing in the drinking water. She paid Wake County $365 to test her well in May and she was expecting everything to come back normal.

“We are in Wake County and outside of that danger area but really close to it,” she said. “So we opted to have that extra testing be done just to be sure and, sure enough, we got those not-so-pretty results back.”

The amount of uranium was five times the federal drinking water standard, which over time can lead to increased risk of certain types of cancer. The radon level was also higher than what was listed as an “elevated level.”

For the last week the family — Scott, her husband, their 7-year-old and infant — are all drinking and cooking with bottled water. She’d been using the well water in her formula for her baby and was told she would need to see her pediatrician.

“These results indicate that you have elevated levels of uranium and radium 226 in your water,” said Amy Keyworth, a hydrogeologist with Wake County, in an email to Scott. “You should consider treatment of your water or use of bottled water in order to protect your health.”

Still on maternity leave, Scott said they haven’t “had much money coming in” and hope to treat their home sometime in July. Until then they’ll remain on bottled water.

At the community meeting Monday night at the New Bethel Baptist Church, Alberta Hall sat anxiously with her husband. They get their well tested almost every year, but she said she wasn’t sure if these metals were included in her tests or if she was in the affected area.

“We saw it on the news today and we have a well, so we are just not sure if we’re in the affected area,” she said. “We just wanted to come out and get the information.”

After the meeting she said she was feeling more concerned than before the meeting.

Rolesville Granite

The contamination of private wells comes from a 200-million-year-old geological formation of granite underneath the ground.

Uranium is not a common mineral, but is found in granite and can remain in the ground for a very long time, said Bill Showers, a geochemist and professor at N.C. State University. When uranium breaks down it creates radon and radium which can also end up in the well water or in the air.

At Monday’s community meeting, Kane said they don’t have enough data to know if newer or deeper wells are any more or less contaminated than older wells.

Beneath the soil there is a layer of porous granite that may have some of the contaminants, but it’s a deeper level of fractured granite that has the uranium and is breaking down into radium and radon, Showers said. Natural pathways through that fractured granite carry water through the formation. It’s there that water comes into contact with the chemicals, he said.

Drinking water with too much uranium can cause kidney toxicity. And, longer term, high levels of uranium or radium can increase the risks of certain cancers. There is also an increased risk of certain types of cancer from drinking or bathing in water with too much radon.

“Would somebody live longer, would their parents live longer if they didn’t live in Knightdale and they lived in Apex because of differences in the water quality,” Showers said. “We just don’t have really good long-term data on that.”

Lifestyle choices and genetics also play a part, he said.

Wake County has already encountered two people who were sick, possibly from their water. The county was told their doctors asked that their well water be tested and that the water was believed to be related to their illness, Kane said in a previous interview.

Wake County environmental health staff have contacted their counterparts within the granite formation area, including in Johnson and Franklin counties.

“I am not overly worried about it, but it is something we need to take seriously,” said Scott LaVigne, Franklin County’s health director.

Close to 70% of the county’s 65,000 residents are on well water. The county plans to start notifying residents at the end of summer, but not in mass like Wake County. Franklin County residents concerned about their wells can call 919-496-2533.

Attempts to call staff members from Johnston, Vance and Warren counties for this story late Tuesday afternoon were not successful.

What to do if you’re concerned about your well:

If you receive a bill for water from a city or community well, then the water is already being tested on a regular basis.

If you have a private well, you may visit wakegov.com/wells and type in your address to see if your well is within the affected area. People can also call 919-893-WELL (9355) to see if their home within the affected area. People who receive a mailer from the county are within the affected area.

The contaminants are tasteless, colorless and tasteless. The only way to know if your well is contaminated is to have your well tested. Information about how to test your well is available at wakegov.com/wells

Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
Support my work with a digital subscription