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Heavy rains threaten wells, septic tanks

Wednesday - 6/12/2013, 7:03am  ET

deluge_rainystreet.jpg
A listener tweeted this photo of rains flooding his front yard and street in Olney, Md., Monday, June 10. The storms triggered flash flood warnings, and high water closed roads around the region. (Courtesy of @Caps_shutterbug)

WASHINGTON - The rain the region has seen in the past week, along with the rain from Tropical Storm Andrea, may have created a hazard for homeowners who have private wells, septic systems or land near rivers and streams.

And upcoming storms could do the same.

Those wells, septic systems or land near water sources can become contaminated with bacteria from flood waters, which could make people sick. Flood waters in general can carry all kinds of contamination.

"There's a potential there that some form of contaminants that are carried in flood waters may infiltrate into the well," said Lance Gregory, an environmental health coordinator for the Virginia Department of Health.

Gregory said if high water submerges a well or even laps against it, homeowners need to have a professional test the water quality before drinking the water or using it to wash dishes or clothes.

To make sure the water is safe, homeowners need two tests, 24 hours apart. Both tests need to indicate that the water is not contaminated.

Until the tests come back, Gregory recommends using bottled water, or water that has been boiled for at least 1 minute before drinking, brushing teeth or preparing food.

He suggests concerned homeowners contact their local health departments with questions or to find a list of professional testing services.

If a septic tank gets covered by water, the system may become sluggish and back up. Homeowners should check for any obvious damage or leakage before using the system.

Gregory said septic system owners should reduce the use of toilets and other drains that empty into the system and allow the groundwater around it to recede.

Bacteria-contaminated flood waters also pose a danger to residents who live along a river or stream bank even if they have public water and sewer.

Homeowners who need to clean up debris from their properties should wear gloves to remove any branches or trash. Gregory says make sure to wash up with warm water and soap and to thoroughly wash clothing after completing the work.

The state health department has more tips and suggestions for those with wells and septic systems.

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