URI students travel the state to educate well owners about how to protect drinking water

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KINGSTON, R.I. – July 30, 2015 – Jessica Janiec and Mahrukh Shaikh are spending the summer visiting farmers’ markets and other venues around Rhode Island to educate private well owners about how to reduce the chance of their drinking water becoming contaminated. Every week they visit three or four different sites, and their important message is always met by a receptive audience.

According to Janiec and Shaikh, it is the responsibility of the well owner to test and regulate the quality of their wells. Unfortunately, commercial enterprises sometimes offer free water tests in unsuspecting neighborhoods as a means of selling unnecessary water treatment systems.

So the students, working with URI’s award-winning residential pollution prevention program Home*A*Syst and with funding from the Rhode Island Department of Health, are spreading the word about proper well water testing wherever they can.

“Most people don’t know what to test for, when to test, and what the test results mean,” said Janiec, an environmental science major from Hillsborough, N.J. “We want to help well owners feel secure about their water and not spend money on treatment systems they don’t need.”

“It can be confusing if you just look for information on Google because you should test for different things in different places,” added Shaikh, a geology major from Pakistan who now lives in East Greenwich. “We have a simplified brochure and tip sheets that tell people exactly what to do.”

The students tell homeowners that they should test their well water every year for coliform bacteria, nitrate, nitrite, chloride and turbidity, while it should also be tested for fluoride, pH, iron, lead, manganese and sulfite every 3 to 5 years. Well water should be tested every 5 to 10 years for volatile organic compounds and MtBE, a compound found in gasoline. If a test has not been conducted in more than a decade, a complete test is recommended.

Janiec and Shaikh also educate well owners about easy steps they can take to protect their well from contamination, like checking for cracks in the well casing and keeping the area around their well free of fertilizers, animal wastes and other pollutants. And they discuss the proper disposal of unwanted medications and paint.

The students have been pleased with the overwhelmingly positive reaction to their message.

“I love the response we get from the people,” Shaikh said. “When they come talk to us, they’re usually clueless about what they should be doing. And when they leave they’re so relieved that they now know what to do and where to go.”

“If we can help people make a simple change that will improve their health and their water quality, that’s awesome,” said Janiec.

Their project is being conducted as part of the URI Coastal Fellows Program, a unique initiative designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its 19th year, it is based at URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences. Students are paired with a mentor and research staff to help them gain skills relevant to their academic major and future occupations.

The students hope to continue the project after their fellowship is over this fall, and both say the project has been beneficial in planning their future careers.

“Water is vital to everyone, and it’s a limited resource, so it is becoming a serious issue,” Janiec said. “I want to work in developing countries that are suffering from severe water problems. I’m interested in water issues all the way.”

Pictured above: URI students Jessica Janiec (second from left) and Mahrukh Shaikh (right) discuss well water testing at a local farmers’ market.

Photo courtesy of Alyson McCann.