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Earth Medicine Science

Viruses From Sewage Contaminate Deep Well Water 93

First time accepted submitter ckwu writes "Scientists once thought that pathogens could not reach drinking water wells sunk into deep, protected groundwater aquifers. Nevertheless, over the past decade, researchers have identified diarrhea-causing viruses at a handful of deep bedrock well sites in the U.S. and Europe. Now, researchers report where these pathogenic viruses may have originated. The viruses appear to seep from sewer pipes and then swiftly penetrate drinking water wells. Experts recommend that public water systems might need to start testing for viruses on a routine basis."
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Viruses From Sewage Contaminate Deep Well Water

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  • One word (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward


    • Re:One word (Score:4, Funny)

      by dmbasso ( 1052166 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @01:49PM (#43527243)

      Just start fracking, so all these sewage contamination problems will be minimized. At least in a relative way...

      • So where is all the science that shows that fracking normally hurts the drinking water supply.
        Yes put regulations on it. If they do make a mistake they should make sure they pay for alternate water supply to the homes, however if fracking is as safe as it says it is, they shouldn't have a problem covering these cases of accidents.

        • Re:One word (Score:5, Informative)

          by hairyfeet ( 841228 ) <bassbeast1968 AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @04:41PM (#43529407) Journal

          Fuck ground water, have you looked at how many fricking earthquakes AR has had in the last 15 years and then compared it to what the state saw for a century? You can just go yanking shit deep underground without causing serious problems the the stability of the ground above it, you just can't.

          Oh and I have dealt a little with the wildcatters and what you need to know is they can get away with anything because they set their businesses up from the start to be liability proof, which frankly ought to tell you something. The wildcatters OWN NOTHING as they have it set up so the least their gear, down to the last stapler, from a shell corp they have set up overseas. Its all bullshit, same guys own both corps, its set up that way so if they poison a town or seriously fuck shit up someplace they can just "burn" the original company (with zero penalty) and then make a new one the same day with a different name but the same people and equipment because that gear is owned by the shell corp.

          Its a great scam, we had some wildcatters disappear owing more than a quarter mil to several businesses and I got some nice deals picking through their corpses at auction but the wildcatters themselves? They just burnt the company and the next town over set up anew with the new name, hell of a scam they got going, practically free money and no risks.

          • by mcrbids ( 148650 )

            Congratulations! You've just laid out exactly why I personally object to corporations in general! There are a million ways that corporations can be used to shield liability and hide money - it could easily be argued that's the reason for their existence in the first place.

            • by epyT-R ( 613989 )

              Governments can be used in similar manners..

              1. Avoiding responsibility? The US federal government vs budget. They don't fix the problem because they don't have to. No one is holding a gun to their head or threatening them with jailtime. In contrast, what happens if the average citizen quits paying his bills? How about the law? the fed flubs the law all the time, whenever it's inconvenient..and they all pat each other on the ass, calling it 'reaching across the aisle'... more like one giant reach aroun

  • It's a biosphere, everything is connected.

    Pesky things.

    • Re:Oops. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @12:39PM (#43526307) Homepage

      OK, now that I actually read the TFA I'm not terribly surprised - other than the fact that this study apparently hasn't been done before.

      Researchers tracked human pathogenic viruses in a city sewage system. The concentration of the little critters varies as waves of infection go back and forth amongst the humans and other creatures whose waste is collected in the system.

      The then track the appearance of viruses in a deep well under the sewage lines and find that about six weeks later, the same virus shows up in the presumably sterile well water with roughly the same kinetics (peak and ebb). So they are able to posit (but not prove) that the viruses came from the sewage system (as opposed to skinnying down the pipe itself or just magically appearing).

      So, you have unmapped connections through the supposedly sealed off clay cap that lies between the sewage systems and the aquifer. Doesn't surprise me. One small earthquake 100000 years ago could have done it.

      But it is a cautionary tale that deserves some additional testing to see how widespread the issue is.

    • Unless you properly seal up your sewerage systems and treat the sewerage, then they aren't connected. Astonishing amounts of clean water leaks out of public supply pipes around the world before it ever reaches a tap, and sometimes things are getting in too, like that case of cryptosporidium that hit a European city a few years back.

      • Unfortunately, keeping substantial lengths of pipe(especially buried pipe in places where you have to fuck up everybody's commute for a week just to dig down and have a look) non-leaky is a hard problem.

        If the substance being piped is dangerous enough, people will suck it up and try(I used to live a few blocks from an elementary school. The guys at the local incompetent natural gas supplier always got a whole lot more... responsive... when I started giving the location as "Maybe 50 meters or so from the ele

    • You mean I can't literally shit where I eat as a society, metaphorically?

  • by schneidafunk ( 795759 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @12:33PM (#43526221)
    Just drink bottled water! Oh wait, doesn't that come from the same place? Beer it is then.
    • Where do you think the water for beer comes from? :-P

      • Where do you think the water for beer comes from? :-P

        From... a process that involves boiling, that will almost certainly kill off the viruses?

      • Doesn't much matter. That's what the alcohol is for. Biological warfare!

        • Re:Simple solution (Score:5, Informative)

          by Doug Otto ( 2821601 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @12:54PM (#43526501)
          Hops are a pretty effective anti-pathogen. In most beers the alcohol content isn't significant in that regard.
          • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

            The boiling is the real anti-pathogen.

            I know I make beer that sometimes has IBUs below 15.

            • The alcohol tastes better than the boiling.,, Also, IIRC pasteurization of beer was relatively recent while the aseptic qualities of alcohol tinctured liquids was known for several thousand years. Could be recalling it incorrectly. Happens every 20 minutes or so.

              • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

                Pasteurization is not what I am speaking of.

                Making beer requires boiling the wort. That is what makes the sugar rich liquid the yeast can live in. Alcohol in beer is generally too low to be preservative or truly antiseptic.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Where do you think the water for beer comes from? :-P


    • "I don't drink water. Fish fuck in it." - W.C. Fields

  • From TFA:

    However, “because Madison chlorinates its water, no one has become sick,” Bradbury adds.

    • by chill ( 34294 )

      General Jack D. Ripper would argue with you.

      I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.

      • I love the reference, but man, that was fluoride!

        • "Have you never wondered why I drink only distilled water, or rainwater, and only pure-grain alcohol?"
          • Well, I, uh... I... I... first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love...Yes, a uh, a profound sense of fatigue... a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I... I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence.... I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women uh... women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I, uh... I do not avoid women, Mandrake... But I... I do deny them my essence.

    • by Tool Man ( 9826 )

      If you have a well of your own, you can (and should) "shock" it from time to time. Best done before you are going to be away for a few days, to let the bleach water hang out in your household water pipes too.

  • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @12:36PM (#43526271) Homepage

    This is what happens when you say "in the absence of evidence it's harmful, we'll assume it's safe".

    It seems entirely reasonable that it going to move around underground. Water tends to do that.

    Sadly, this is not much different from all of the fracking and the like going on -- everybody says "well, it must be safe since there's no evidence to the contrary", and then people find themselves with flammable tap water. Then the companies try hard to deny that what they did had any impact, and that it must have been contaminated before (even when things were tested and came up clean).

    Water will move around in cracks, and penetrate wherever it can. Human sewage is going to be full of pathogens, and those aren't going to stay put because we want them to.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      If I recall the claims about fracking causing flammable water were debunked. Some geographical areas naturally have some methane gas in their water and it's been that way for decades.

      As a Colorado resident I can tell you that the ground water here is considered sacrosanct. Road crews don't even use salt on the roads because of fear that it will contaminate the aquifers. A good chunk of our population would have NO water if the aquifers ever became contaminated, which would lead to a mass exodus. In short, p

      • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @01:37PM (#43527069) Homepage

        If I recall the claims about fracking causing flammable water were debunked.

        Only by the people doing the fracking who go to great lengths to deny it. Everyone else is still studying it, or has already found evidence fracking leads to contamination.

        Contamination at one point could take decades or even centuries to spread significantly throughout the aquifer

        It could, but apparently, it doesn't.

        TFA is pointing out that it was supposed to be hundreds of years, when it's really very fast (like weeks or months).

        • My neighbors down the road, when I lived in another state 20 years ago, had gas in their water. I don't have any relationship with any natural gas drillers, and there was no drilling in the area. So there's one.
          • So if any well, at any time in history, was contaminated without drilling, we conclude that there is no basis to say that drilling can lead to contaminated wells.


            So using this horribly flawed logic, if anybody died of cancer before the use of tobacco, we can conclude that tobacco doesn't cause cancer.

            You keep telling yourself that.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Tator Tot ( 1324235 )
      You really need to educate yourself with fracking before you start with the talking points.

      First, the people who claimed that their "flammable tap water" started happening ONLY when they began fracking have not necessarily been honest. In the past, these same people reported that their water was flammable, many years prior to fracking ever occuring in Pennsylvania.

      Take a look at some news sources that attempt to remove the bias, such as Science News [sciencenews.org]

      Newly fracked gas wells could also be intersecting with old, abandoned gas or oil wells, allowing methane from those sites to migrate. "We've punched holes in the ground in Pennsylvania for 150 years," Jackson says. Many old wells have not been shut down properly, he says. "You find ones that people plugged with a tree stump." In some places in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and elsewhere (especially those with existing coal beds), methane turned up in well water long before hydraulic fracturing became widespread.

      Any place sitting on top of the Marcellus Shale

  • Sewer systems are complicated. They have to deal with non-fluid debris besides the effluent. Drinking water is much easier to pipe. The sewer pipes only transfer 70%-90% of the effluent to the treatment plant. What leaks out is full of human pathogens. Possibly animal and plant pathogens depending on what gets sent "down the drain". If we have the available soil at a location, we should use a septic system. The septic tank traps debris and kills pathogens. The septic field returns nutrients to the s

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Septic systems only work when density is low since a drain field covers 1/2 to a full acre of land. Then the theory is, hopefully the waste water will move slow enough through the system that bacteria finish eating up all the poo before it runs back into the aquifer. My town is all 1 acre lots with wells and septic, and we're having to go deeper and deeper to get clean water.

      Your idea of a septic tank upstream of the city sewer connection is a common one. Sometimes public utilities will come into an old

  • Semantics? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Dancindan84 ( 1056246 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @12:46PM (#43526407)

    Scientists once thought that pathogens could not reach drinking water wells sunk into deep, protected groundwater aquifers.

    And from TFA:
    Groundwater models predicted that surface contaminants would require tens to hundreds of years to reach wells in these aquifers, which typically sit more than 700 feet underground.

    They may still be right about their overall assumption, but were just wrong about those handful of wells being "protected". Basically, it's not THAT the viruses reached the aquifers (the models predicted they'd get there, but that it would take longer than the virus could survive: 700 years), it's HOW they did it so much more quickly than was modelled.

    Also from TFAs:
    Bradbury thinks that the problem probably occurs in any city with wells located under sewage pipes.

    The most likely source of the viruses in the wells was leakage of untreated sewage from sanitary sewer pipes.

    Emphasis mine. Anyone want to bet that the 700 year models were based on uncompromised pipes that didn't leak, and only calculated the time for potential contaminants to get from the sewage outlet to the well?

    • Re:Semantics? (Score:4, Informative)

      by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @12:54PM (#43526493) Homepage

      In other words, in a perfect world where their idealized model actually applied, they were right.

      But in reality, they had a set of unfounded/incomplete assumptions, acted on that, and then subsequently discovered that the duck isn't perfectly spherical.

      But if anybody points out at the time that the assumptions are based on a lot of unknowns, they get dismissed as being alarmist and raising hypothetical concerns when their team of crack scienticians can pat our heads and tell us our fears are unfounded.

      By the time you figure out they had no real way of knowing if this was safe, it's too damned late.

      And in the modern context where lobbyists and special interests want to muddy the waters with their mouth-piece organizations and fake journals, they get what they want, and the rest of us will be left to deal with the consequences.

      Privatize the profits, socialize the risk is a winning formula if you can prevent people from believing the dangers posed by putting up your own "competing theory", which is usually from a bought and paid for "research institute" or "academic journal".

      • Along those lines. Like the joke about a physicist solving an engineering problem. "This will work... In a zero gravity vacuum."

        Actually had a real world example of this.

        My then fiance was telling us around the dinner table about her teacher and his wife who were both mathematicians. They did ridiculous stuff in their free time like figuring out the most efficient way to mow their lawn. They came up with the idea it was more efficient to mow in circles instead of box/rows. When I laughed, she said they show

        • And the source of the whole raft of jokes which come down to "A Mathematician, a Physicist, and an Engineer".

          In the high school gym, all the girls in the class were lined up against one wall, and all the boys against the opposite wall. Then, every ten seconds, they walked toward each other until they were half the previous distance apart. A mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer were asked, "When will the girls and boys meet?"
          The mathematician said: "Never."
          The physicist said: "In an infinite amount o

  • Leaving wild animals and their poops aside, there's plenty of human dwellings with a well at one end of their property and a septic tank& leaching field at the other. Anything that passes through the X feet of filtering soil is going to find its way into the groundwater. It would seem that, other than the "ick" factor, there's really nothing new here.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      And yet the government will send inspectors out to nail you for having a "substandard onsite waste disposal system" that isn't actually leaching anything. In the meantime, the government owned sewer pipes are overflowing into San Francisco Bay on a routine basis. What's wrong with this picture?

      Oh, and just *try* to legally install a composting toilet system which doesn't leach anything under normal operation. America. The only country where we actually shit into the water.

      • Having been around some of this planet a few times, I have *no clue* why you think the USA is some bad example of bad sewer pipes. There are PLENTY of places that are worse!
    • by vux984 ( 928602 )

      there's plenty of human dwellings with a well at one end of their property and a septic tank& leaching field at the other.

      The septic tank is the key difference. It doesn't go from the toilet to the drainage field directly. The tank is effectively a mini-sewage treatment plant.

      The analogy would only be apt if the pipe from the house to the septic tank was assumed to be leaking.

      TFA suggests the problem is leakage from pipes carrying waste to the sewage treatment plants.

  • Interesting to see what they actually found as TFA doesn't mention it. Assuming ECHO is Enteric Cytopathic Human Orphan, Adeno is Adenovirus and Cox is Coxsackie virus which can cause swelling of the tissue around the heart. Yeessh...

    http://pubs.acs.org/appl/literatum/publisher/achs/journals/content/esthag/0/esthag.ahead-of-print/es400509b/aop/images/large/es-2013-00509b_0006.jpeg [acs.org]

  • by wbr1 ( 2538558 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @01:17PM (#43526829)
    ...that fracking chemicals won't seep into well water either.
  • This has been know for many many years. Simple (and old) science.
  • by srobert ( 4099 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @01:24PM (#43526929)

    The article states that viruses in drinking water aren't regulated by the EPA. That's a bit misleading. Regulations pertaining to pathogens in surface water and ground water sources in drinking water are largely based on disinfection criteria that would remove or inactivate 99.99% of viruses from the water.

    http://water.epa.gov/drink/contaminants/basicinformation/pathogens.cfm#What%20pathogens%20does%20EPA%20regulate%20in%20drinking%20water,%20and%20what%20are%20their%20health%20effects [epa.gov]?

    Steve Robertson, PE
    Las Vegas Valley Water District
    Planning Division
    Water Quality Team

    Finally, after 15 years, a Slashdot article in my field.

    • by Ramsus ( 697543 )

      Interesting link! the ground water rule http://www.epa.gov/fedrgstr/EPA-WATER/2000/May/Day-10/w10763.htm [epa.gov] would be the specific one that applies here? It will be fun to see how quickly the EPA or other organisations mobilise based on this data. It sounds like a lot of work to remedy these problems once found.

    • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

      yes, so if viruses get down to the well water, it just means they have to spend a bit more on disinfecting it - and not making the whole water supply useless? because that's how it would sound to me.

      • by Rich0 ( 548339 )

        If the rule is 99.99%, then they don't need to spend any more. More viruses in, more viruses out.

        I would hope they'd do a lot better than 99.99% though - these are asexually-reproducing organisms, not chemicals. It only takes one to cause a problem. (Yes, I realize that viruses don't reproduce on their own. No, it won't help you if you happen to swallow the glass of water with a single viable virus in it and it manages to attach to one of your cells.)

  • That seems the most plausible path. All it takes is a hole in the sewer pipe and a hole in the water pipe and there's your path. Once in the water pipes it doesn't sound impossible for pathogens to move backwards into the aquifer. I admit the pressure gradient should work against this but it sounds more plausible than quickly transiting a "a thick layer of clay or shale" separating the sewer pipes from the aquifer.

  • I'm still trying to understand this. How did they trace viruses to the bedrock well sites? Did they have Windows installed? Did they find the address where IP from? I suspect that I may be an inadvertant source of the virus, but I don't know why or how to stop it. I even tried to wipe my drive and perform a system flush, but it just made the problem worse. Help - anybody?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Sadly sewer system leakage is far from unusual. In some areas the lines are decades old and have degraded severely. Some areas are making efforts to locate and repair problems (robotic cameras, testing, maintenance programs), others though just don't care. I know a utility worker who was working on some rainwater drainage piping and found a city sewage line basically dumping into the rainwater line, he reported it to the city in question but their response was basically "Oh well, we'll get around to it e

  • Isn't this why we add chlorine to water? And if you visit a foreign country and drink the water - you get sick?
    How is it news that unfiltered ground water can contain harmful pathogens?

  • If "scientists thought that pathogens could not reach drinking water wells sunk into deep, protected groundwater aquifers", why are all domestic wells required by law to be tested to ensure there are no pathogens in the well water?

"What the scientists have in their briefcases is terrifying." -- Nikita Khrushchev