Thousands of people in eastern Wake County are likely drinking water with “unhealthy levels” of radiological chemicals.
After testing hundreds of wells, Wake County estimates about one in five wells in eastern Wake County exceed the safe drinking-water standards for uranium and radium.
Some test results show levels 10 to 20 times higher than the standard.
Those private wells are primarily outside city and town limits. Community wells and municipal water systems are required to be regularly monitored. There’s no such requirement for privately owned wells.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
“We are extremely concerned, but we don’t want to create a panic,” said Evan Kane, Wake County’s ground water manager. “This is a manageable problem, but the first step is you have to know whether you have the problem.”
The only way to know whether you have the problem is by getting your well tested. Nearly half of Wake County’s private wells — about 20,000 — are on the eastern side of the county and recommended for radiological testing. Radiological means relating to radiology and nuclear radiation.
Based on its estimates, Wake County expects 4,000 to 6,000 of those wells to have “unhealthy levels of radiological contaminants in well water.”
The unsafe chemicals are odorless, colorless and tasteless. Water testing can be done by the county for about $150, or by a private company. The county can’t force someone to get their private well tested.
Wake County has already encountered two people who were sick, possibly from their drinking water. The county was told their doctors asked that the patients’ well water be tested and that the water was believed to be related to their illness, Kane said.
Long-term exposure to uranium and other radiological chemicals can increase a person’s chance of cancer and uranium, at high levels, can cause kidney failure.
The source of the chemicals is the naturally occurring uranium in the granite that stretches across the eastern part of Wake County and some nearby counties.
“We have this geological formation in the eastern part of that county that can produce chemicals that can get in your water,” said Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, who represents the eastern part of the county. “And it’s totally random. What we’ve learned is you can drill the land and it be here and the next lot over it not be a problem.”
If your water exceeds the federal drinking standards and recommendations, the issue can be managed. But it will cost thousands.
Depending on the chemical, it could cost as a little as $1,500 to install a reverse osmosis system to treat water coming in through the kitchen to $5,000 to $15,000 to install a system that treats the entire house.
A water sample from southeast Raleigh with high levels of uranium caught the attention of county officials in 2010. Over the next four years Wake County tested about 400 wells in different parts of eastern Wake County and found the high levels of unsafe chemicals.
Wake County is notifying people in areas with the greatest risk, but progress is slow, Kane said.
People began getting notifications in 2016, but it could take a decade to notify everyone. Part of that backlog is because only six people work in the ground water section of the county. The Environmental Services Department has requested additional staff members in the last few budgets, but the request has not been funded.
The county will evaluate whether adding new staff members or contracting the work would best suit the county’s needs, said Wake County Manager David Ellis.
What about new wells?
The only time a private well is required to be tested is when it’s first built. Wake County permits and inspects about 350 to 400 new wells every year.
“It’s just a snapshot of your water quality,” Kane said. “It can change over time, and that test result can’t tell you what you are drinking two years from now.”
But that initial test doesn’t cover radiological chemicals like radium and uranium. Wake County leaders are debating updating those rules to require new wells dug in eastern Wake County complete “radiological testing.” A radon test would not be included.
If those rules are changed, about 10 percent of new wells in the eastern part of the county would require some sort of treatment. Those treatments could cost home builders about $5,000 per home.
The last time the rules were updated were in 2003.
How to get your well tested
You can visit wakegov.com/water/wells and then click on “get my well water tested” or call 919-856-7400. People who live in the eastern part of Wake County are encouraged to ask for the “rads package” which tests for radon, “alpha particle radiation from uranium,” radium 226, radium 228 and “beta particle radiation from other elements.”
The cost of the rads package is $100 plus. People can also get their wells tested by a private provider but are encouraged to make sure they are certified by the North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health.