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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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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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).

  • by Tator Tot ( 1324235 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2013 @01:43PM (#43527149)
    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 []

    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 has a chance for hydrocarbons to rise through layers of sediment related to the old wells that were drilled there. Remember that Pennsylvania was the "oil center of the world" in the late 1800's.

    Could fracking play a part in methane increases due to the multitude of old wells that were drilled in Pennsylvania a long time ago? Possibly. Could fracking play a part in methane increases in homes in "new plays" located in North Dakota? Highly unlikely.

    Second, when you frac 15k feet below the surface, you might fracture rock up to a half mile up or down (and I'm being generous). So if you're fracking horizontally, you'll induce fractures that can travel anywhere from 12.5k to 17.5k feet below the earth. You know where the LOWEST aquafer's are located? (and again, I'm being generous) Around 1000 ft below the surface.

    Do you think frac operations use too much water? That's a legitimate concern.
    Do you think frac operations could do better and treating and disposing waste water? That's a legitimate concern.
    Do you think frac operations pump toxic chemicals below the ground? Then you should really check your fact sources.
    Do you think frac operations have "secret chemicals" that they put in the water, and they won't tell us what they are? Then you should really check your fact sources. Go to any major service company's website (Halliburton, Schlumberger, etc) and search for "what's in frac water?"
    Do you think frac operations cause natural gas to seep into aquifers? It's a concern, but you really need to check your fact sources, and take into account several factors before drawing conclusions.

Perfection is acheived only on the point of collapse. - C. N. Parkinson