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Private wells
Nearly half of the sampled homes had measurable lead in their private well water.

KCH's Geiger wants to address rural urban disparity

When KCH Assistant Professor Sarah Geiger received a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to study private water wells, her primary focus was finding a way to mitigate the amount of lead in drinking water. She might not have expected another outcome.

Geiger, the principal investigator for a study entitled, "Drinking Water Lead Remediation Strategies for Illinois Homes with Domestic Wells,” received a grant of about $1 million from the HUD 2019 Healthy Homes Technical Study Grant Program. As researchers do, she set out to find participants for her study. But to Geiger, the participants weren’t just numbers on a to-do list.

“The rural people who I work with in my private well study have made an impact on me. We have people living in quite impoverished conditions, although they don't seem to let it affect their self-worth. They are very salt of the earth people and gracious to us when we come to their homes. I would like to be able to tell their stories,” she said.

In the initial stage of Geiger’s project, the Illinois State Water Survey (with collaborators from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and county public health departments) measured lead levels in homes with private wells in rural areas of Peoria, Jackson, and Kane counties, finding that nearly half of the sampled homes had measurable lead.

Lead exposure can cause serious damage to children's developing brains, so identifying elevated lead concentrations and working with homeowners and public health workers to mitigate sources of lead in water is vital, according to Walt Kelly of the Water Survey, one of Geiger’s collaborators.

For Geiger, part of the issue is a health disparity.

“Clearly not all people who are in municipal systems have clean water. I mean, that's not even close to being true. But at least there are these mechanisms that are in place in an attempt to keep it free from lead.

“I work with PFAS. There's all this (Environmental Protection Agency) PFAS testing going on. It doesn't test private wells. But there are PFAS in private wells, I can guarantee you. And they're not going to be picked up, they're going to be left out of that.”

Geiger’s passion about the subject comes through in the interview as she talks about how generous and kind people are when she and her colleagues visit homes with private wells. Most often, she visits rural, low-income communities across Illinois.

“We'll go out and meet the well inspector, meet the plumber, meet the county health staff, and the people that will have to be there because they have to let us into their home to do the plumbing assessment. And they’re really gracious, I mean we're bringing all these people into their home,” she said. “We try to reassure them.”

Still, Geiger said, she has to warn study participants about things the plumber might see, such as mold around plumbing fixtures. It’s not uncommon to see hand-dug basements or basements with dirt floors, Geiger said.

“Rural people have often lived on their land for generations and have intimate knowledge about its history, including the wells, plumbing, and water issues. But sometimes there is an opportunity for education when we see things that participants may not know are health hazards,” she said.

Geiger said she tells the study participants that she and her colleague are not there to identify problems or issue fines.

“They're receptive to (the inspections) and I think they do care about their water quality. They're proud of their place,” she said.

What Geiger wants to emphasize is that her study is aimed at helping people remediate their well issues.

“In addition to the water testing, they get this plumbing survey, they get their well inspection. And then they potentially will get, not everybody, but those with the highest levels of lead will get this remediation.”

But in order to implement larger-scale change, especially for private well owners, government regulations need to change, she said.

“We have the Lead and Copper Rule for municipal systems where there has to be this routine testing, and mitigation if there's an issue. Why are rural people not able to take advantage of the benefits that urban people have in terms of clean water?”

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