7 Signs Your Well Water Could Be Contaminated

If you rely on getting your water from a private well, it's your responsibility to make sure it is safe for consumption. Learn about the signs that can indicate contaminants have gotten into your water and then what to do about it.

By: Maggie Pace

More than 43 million Americans rely on private wells for their drinking water, but is it safe? Unlike the tap water you get from the city, well water is not tested or treated by any government agency. This means that it’s the responsibility of the homeowner to test, treat, and maintain the well in order to ensure its water is safe for use. Drinking contaminated well water can pose a major health risk, so it’s important to know the signs and how to prevent getting sick.

In this guide, we’ll share tips to help you figure out if your well water may be contaminated and what you can do about it.

Can well water make you sick?

Contaminated well water can cause both short and long-term illnesses from exposure. The bacteria and nitrates in well water may cause temporary sickness like stomach issues, diarrhea, and nausea. Continuous exposure over time can lead to chronic problems like anemia, high blood pressure, and cancer. Even if you don’t drink well water, you can get sick from exposure in other ways. For example, showering exposes your skin through direct contact, and some contaminants may be vaporized as steam and result in your lungs being exposed to contaminants.

"Even if you don’t drink well water, you can get sick from exposure in other ways."

Common well water contaminants

If you have a private well, it falls on you or your subdivision to make sure your water is safe for consumption and use. While contaminants in water will vary by situation and geography, here are a few contaminants that are most commonly found in well water:

  • Heavy Metals: Arsenic, copper, chromium, and lead are just a few of the heavy metals that can get into your well water supply via the movement of groundwater, surface water seepage, and runoff. These contaminants wreak havoc on a range of vital organs, such as the liver, kidneys, and intestines. These metals can also cause cancer. 
  • Pesticides and Herbicides: Due to their widespread use in agriculture and industry, pesticides and herbicides end up in well water supplies because of runoff, waste disposal, and spills. These contaminants can cause damage to the kidneys and liver, as well as the circulatory, nervous, and reproductive systems.
  • Nitrate and Nitrite: These contaminants come from chemical fertilizers, human sewage, and animal waste, and they end up in your well water supply because of groundwater movement, surface water seepage, and water runoff.
  • Microorganisms: Contaminants like bacteria, viruses, and parasites can all find their way into your water supply through runoff from rain or snow melting and leakage from underground storage tanks and septic leach fields. These contaminants can cause gastrointestinal illnesses and infections when ingested.
  • Fluoride: While fluoride can be helpful with tooth decay prevention, ingesting too much can cause a painful condition called skeletal fluorosis, which impacts the bones and joints. Fluoride can leach into the well water supply from the weathering of fluoride-rich minerals within rocks and sediments.

Signs of contaminated well water

There are some pretty clear visual signs and symptoms you can use to determine if your well water is contaminated. Here is a list of a few of the signs you should keep an eye out for:

1. Murky or cloudy appearance

Your water is supposed to be crystal clear when it comes out of the tap. A murky or cloudy appearance could be a culmination of dirt, clay, silt, or rust present in your water. These particles find their way into your glass because well water passes over these materials on its way to your tap. Unclear water can also be caused by air bubbles or a symptom of plumbing issues beyond well water contamination. 

2. Visible sediment in water

Similar to the murky or cloudy appearance, your well water is likely contaminated if you can see particles of dirt, clay, rust, and other sediments. The presence of particles big enough to see confirms that there are likely much smaller particles you can’t see, which could have serious health impacts if ingested. In addition to making you sick, visible sediment in your water can clog well pump tanks and your home plumbing system.

3. Oily film on water

Water with an oily appearance often arises from the convergence of excess minerals and other organic substances, like iron bacteria, within your water supply. This oily sheen occurs when these minerals oxidize in contact with air, affecting the quality of your water. High quantities of iron bacteria in your water can indicate a worn-out well pump or that your well has been installed too close to an untreated water source. 

If the oily sheen on your water is more intense, like that of petroleum on water, you’ll definitely need to fix your plumbing, as ingesting petroleum or other man-made pollutants can have a serious negative impact on your health.

4. Scale or scum buildup in pipes, showerheads, and faucets

Scale buildup has a distinctive white look that clogs faucets, shower heads, and pipes. If your water has a scummy feel to it, it could indicate the presence of calcium or magnesium in your well water. The high mineral content of scale and scummy water creates hard water, which can lead to problems like dingy laundry, streaked dishes, and weak shower heads — in addition to the unsightly scale buildup.

5. Brown, red, or green stains on sinks, clothes, and appliances

Contaminated well water can leave behind brown, red, or green stains on your sinks, clothes, and appliances due to the presence of different particles in your water. Brown and red stains can be an indicator of dissolved iron in your water, whereas green stains are due to different acids. Too much iron in your water can cause damage to your heart, liver, and pancreas, as well as affect your home’s well water system and pipes.

6. Rotten egg, detergent, or chlorine smell

The presence of a rotten egg, detergent, or chlorine smell in well water is a notable indicator of contamination, each scent corresponding to distinct types of pollutants. A rotten egg odor typically arises from the presence of hydrogen sulfide gas, while a detergent-like smell can indicate a septic tank leak into the water. Finally, a chlorine smell can be linked to nearby pesticides or chemicals. Exposure to any of these chemicals at high levels can be bad for your health.

7. Salty, soapy, metallic, or chemical taste

If your water has a salty, soapy, metallic, or chemical taste, that’s a strong indication that your well supply could be contaminated. A salty taste could be due to a high sodium or chloride content in your water. While both of these chemicals are naturally occurring, they sometimes end up in well water supplies due to road salt, sewage, and fertilizers. In high doses, they are both bad for your health and can corrode your plumbing system. Soapy-tasting water indicates high levels of alkaline minerals like calcium, potassium, magnesium, and bicarbonate. While good for you in small doses, too much of these minerals can irritate your skin and your gastrointestinal tract.

Water that tastes heavily of chemicals could be due to nearby pesticides or other chemicals that have entered into your private well. Heart disease and cancer can result from ingesting high levels of pesticides in your drinking water, but usually, the levels found in drinking water shouldn’t be high enough to cause those health effects. Lastly, a metallic taste indicates a high level of acids in your water that can cause stomach problems and irritated skin if not treated properly.

What to do if your well water is contaminated

If you think your well water is contaminated, here is a list of steps you can take to address your problem:

1. Stop using water sourced from the well

If you suspect that your well water might be contaminated due to the presence of unusual odors, strange flavors, or stains, the initial and most crucial step is to immediately cease consuming or using the water for drinking, cooking, and other household purposes. Your health and well-being are paramount, and continuing to use potentially contaminated water could expose you and your family to various health risks.

2. Have the well water tested to identify contaminants

After discontinuing the use of potentially contaminated well water, the next step is to arrange for a test to identify the contaminants. Seeking the expertise of certified water testing professionals is paramount in this phase. The testing process encompasses a wide range of potential pollutants, including bacteria, chemicals, heavy metals, and more.

3. Install a well water filter to make it safe

After identifying the contaminants affecting your well water through professional testing, the third step is to proactively safeguard your water quality by installing a reliable well water filtration system. A high-quality filtration system can effectively remove a wide spectrum of impurities, including bacteria, chemicals, sediments, and odorous compounds, ensuring that the water you and your loved ones consume is safe and pure. The best way to treat well water specifically is with UV (ultraviolet) disinfection, so we strongly recommend a system that includes that filtration step. 

Among the notable options available, Aquasana's Rhino® Well Water with UV technology stands out as an exceptional choice. This advanced, whole house filtration system was designed specifically for homes that rely on well water and sterilizes 99.99% of viruses and bacteria and 99% of cysts – contaminants commonly found in well water. With multiple filtration stages and ultraviolet disinfection, the Rhino® Well Water with UV can help make your well water cleaner and healthier.


Rhino® Well Water with UV

Whole house filtration system protects from bacteria, viruses, cysts and other contaminants commonly found in well water. Lasts for 5 years or 500,000 gallons.