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ANKENY, Iowa  —  You use it to cook, bathe, and drink every day, but do you know if your water is safe? If you own a private well, regular water checks are not mandatory, and you could be drinking harmful bacteria.

Last fall, the State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa partnered with 15 counties throughout the state to offer free well water testing. Out of the 250 private wells they tested, about a third had some form of bacteria, nitrates, or arsenic.

There are between 275,000 and 300,000 people in Iowa use private well water. The state hygienic lab created these free tests as part of a survey to better understand the quality of water in Iowa’s private wells and to create an awareness of public health. The lab recommends testing your private well water once a year for bacteria and nitrate and every five years for arsenic. The bacteria they test for are E. coli and total coliforms, which they call indicator bacteria.

“They tell us that there could potentially be other, more harmful compounds, or things in the water like viruses or pathogens that could make you much sicker than what the indicator bacteria could,” State Hygienic Laboratory Assistant Director of Environmental Operations Mike Schueller said.

Even if your home has a treatment system, the water may still be contaminated. The State Hygienic Lab said, from their tests last fall, nearly half of the treated water had traces of bacteria.

“So as we look at our water samples, even if we have samples that are perfectly clear and they look clean, clear doesn’t necessarily mean clean, safe drinking water, so that’s why we test,” Schueller said.

The free private well tests through the State Hygienic Labs will go through the end of June, but they will begin again in the fall. Contact your county sanitarian in the public health office to take a sample. Not every county in Iowa is partnering with the labs, so if your county is not, ask the sanitarian if a neighboring county would come test your well.

Questions about free water testing should be directed to the health department in the county where the well is located or to the State Hygienic Laboratory. Not all states are participating in the Iowa Well Survey, but 98 of 99 Iowa counties do offer free water testing for private well owners through the Grants to Counties Program.