Public Health urges rural Hamiltonians to test tap water

Over the past nine years, an average of 182 households had drinking water contaminated with E. coli.
Public Health's Eric Matthews fills a bottle to test rural tap water for bacteria such as E. coli. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

Dale and Marie Smith have many reasons to make sure their drinking water is safe — the dairy farm they own behind their house, their black and white dog running around their property, the pictures of grandchildren on their fridge.

The Smiths, who live in Mount Hope, access water from a well system. That's normal in rural Hamilton. But drinking well water comes with some risks. There have been an average of 182 households annually since 2004 who have unsafe drinking water with bacteria like E. coli in their system.

The city relies on residents for well testing by submitting samples to Public Health. Over the past few years, the number of submissions has been dropping.

"We're trying to get the word out," said Eric Matthews, a manager with Hamilton Public Health. "We're trying to get the water samples increased."

While positive E. coli tests flat-lined at five per cent of residential tested water in 2009, the number of sample submissions has decreased over the past three years.

"This is where we really need the residents to help us out," said local city councillor Brenda Johnson. "Especially when there is a farm on-site. It's good for consumers."

Related: Students find high bacteria levels in Hamilton creeks

Rural Hamiltonians can pick up a special kit from Public Health that includes a small bottle to be filled with tap water. Residents can then return it for testing.

Matthews said there are about 150 wells in rural Hamilton that are regulated and tested in rural Hamilton under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but it's up to Hamiltonians to submit samples from their own water systems.

"[E.coli] is likely due to poor well maintenance or poor construction," Matthews said.

With seasonal change, the grout seal separating the mouth of the well and the group can crack and water can seep in, he said, so contributing manual samples is important.

Matthew said Public Health is changing their game to get to word out. For the first time, 10-second radio ads will remind rural Hamiltonians to get a testing kit.

The Smiths are lucky — because of their farm, the dairy board tests their water for them every six months. But today, they fill a bottle with water from their kitchen tap anyway and send it back with Matthews for testing.