Contamination Of Iowa’s Private Wells Poses Serious Health Hazards

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IEC:  Iowa’s Private Wells Contaminated by Nitrate and Bacteria

Des Moines Water Works has struggled for years to provide safe drinking water to its customers, battling nitrate contamination from upstream farms. But contamination from agricultural practices may be even worse for the estimated 230,000 to 290,000 Iowans whose drinking water comes from private wells, an investigation by Environmental Working Group and Iowa Environmental Council finds.

Between 2002 and 2017, unsafe levels of nitrate, coliform bacteria and fecal coliform bacteria were found in thousands of wells across Iowa. Farms are among the main source of the contamination, especially in rural areas of the state.

Almost three-fourths of private wells polluted by these contaminants were in rural counties. Nitrate from fertilizer and animal manure and bacteria from manure applied to farm fields seep through soil or run off poorly protected fields to contaminate drinking water.

Contamination of Iowa’s private wells poses serious health hazards, including elevated cancer risk and birth defects. Yet no state or federal agency requires testing or regulation of private wells. The state requires testing only once, for newly dug or repaired wells.

Public water systems have strict rules about how much nitrate and bacteria are in drinking water. But private well owners are left to deal with harmful pollutants on their own.


Click on the map to explore which private wells have the most contamination.

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