Addressing the drinking water gap in Mass.

Regulation of private wells falls short of standards for public drinking water

AMONG THE MANY progressive actions taken in Massachusetts, access to clean water was deemed a right guaranteed by Article 97 of the state Constitution in 1972, yet over half a million residents lack adequate drinking water protections. Unlike residents served by public water systems, private well owners are at risk of drinking water contaminated by arsenic, E. coli, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), radon, uranium, and more. This is a great inequity that has been overlooked for too long, and until now there was no organized effort to address this gap in the Commonwealth’s drinking water protections.

Clean drinking water is of vital importance to human health. In a 2005 study, Harvard University economist David Cutler and Stanford University professor of medicine Grant Miller found that new water treatment methods in the first part of the 20th century led to the most dramatic reduction in death rates in US history. Prior to water filtration, mortality rates were 30 percent higher in urban areas than in rural areas, a phenomenon often known as the “urban penalty,” in part because urban sewer systems commonly emptied near drinking water sources, resulting in waterborne diseases.

Cutler and Miller found that, following the introduction of water treatment, clean water was responsible for nearly half the total mortality reduction in major cities, three quarters of the infant mortality reduction, and nearly two thirds of the child mortality reduction.

Today in Massachusetts, one could argue that residents in many parts of the state face a rural penalty. In the more urban parts of the state, residents have access to public water systems, which are subject to Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) regulations and are routinely tested for contaminants. In contrast, in the more rural parts of the state, residents tend to lack access to public water infrastructure and usually rely on private wells, which are not subject to minimum statewide regulations. Even in municipalities with public water systems, a small percentage of residents may still use private wells.

MassDEP lacks the authority to regulate private wells, as that authority rests with local Boards of Health, many of which have limited resources to address the issue amidst many competing priorities. Under the current patchwork system of local private well regulations, some towns have no regulations or outdated regulations while other towns have very strict regulations.

For those of us who have lived in many parts of the state over the course of our lives and have relied on public water systems and private wells at different points in time, it is puzzling that we experience variable drinking water protections based on where we live. Interestingly, a similar patchwork system of local regulations existed for septic systems prior to 1995, which resulted in negative health and environmental impacts when sewage was inappropriately discharged. Following the enactment of Title 5 in 1995, MassDEP developed uniform statewide regulations to ensure that septic systems were up to par. Ironically, our state regulates the wastewater leaving a home but not the water entering a home from a private well and being consumed.

A 2021 pilot project funded by The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts and led by RCAP Solutions tested 240 private wells in six towns and found that approximately 27 percent of wells had contaminants exceeding state health standards and/or suggesting potential health risks. In one town, that figure was 55 percent. Imagine if 55 percent of the homes in your neighborhood had unsafe drinking water. The ongoing MassDEP PFAS Private Well Testing Program has found that 5 percent of wells have PFAS6 exceeding the state’s public drinking water standard. The unfortunate reality of our current system is that many Massachusetts residents are unknowingly drinking contaminated water from private wells.

Meet the Author

Amie Shei

President and CEO-elect, Health Foundation of Central Massachuetts
The Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture is currently considering S.2667, “An Act Promoting Drinking Water Quality for All,” sponsored by Sen. James B. Eldridge of Acton. A hearing for the bill was aptly held on March 22, 2022, World Water Day, and oral testimony was provided by local public health experts, academic researchers, practitioners, and homeowners, all advocating for better protections for private well owners across the state. (The House version of the bill, HD.4693, was filed by Rep. Danillo A. Sena.) The Legislature now has an opportunity to address longstanding inequities in drinking water quality. Access to safe, clean drinking water should not depend on where one lives in Massachusetts.

Amie Shei is the president and CEO of The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, which has provided over $1 million in funding to support the Private Well Program to Protect Public Health.