Need for Transparency and Ongoing Communication After Residents With Contaminated Water Wells Are Connected to City Water.

Author:Ablah, Elizabeth
Position:ADVANCEMENT OF THE PRACTICE - Report - Cover story


Contaminants, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), are mobile in the environment and often are a source of groundwater contamination (U.S. Geological Survey, 2016). These compounds can migrate from the soil surface into groundwater from spills, accidental releases, and poor disposal practices. VOCs include compounds such as vinyl chloride, tetrachloroethylene (PERC), and trichloroethylene (TCE), which pose developmental, cardiovascular, neurological, respiratory, immunological, and carcinogenic risks to humans (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control [ATSDR], 2011, 2018a, 2018b; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2018). PERC exposure can lead to dizziness, headaches, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, difficulty in speaking and walking, unconsciousness, increased risk of Parkinson's disease, and death (ATSDR, 2015). Chronic exposure to PERC in contaminated drinking water can lead to specific risks such as liver and kidney damage, stillbirths, pregnancy complications, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and leukemia, as well as rectal, bladder, breast, and lung cancers (ATSDR 2000, 2018a).

Industrial solvents, such as VOCs, including PERC and TCE, are used in the dry cleaning industry (ATSDR, 2018a). An estimated 27,000 dry cleaning sites in the U.S. are thought to be contaminated by PERC and an additional 90% of all former or abandoned dry cleaning sites are thought to have PERC contamination (Auger Group, 2011). In fact, because of its common use in dry cleaning, historical disposal practices, and ability to contaminate water supplies, PERC has been found in more than half of all the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) National Priorities List Sites (ATSDR, 2015).

West Wichita, Kansas, Contamination

In 2009, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) discovered groundwater contamination at a former industrial site in west Wichita when U.S. EPA sponsored testing for radium at a former business that produced radium dials used for aircraft instrumentation (KDHE, 2009). An environmental assessment included three groundwater samples, analyzing for radium-226, metals, mercury, and VOCs. The groundwater samples were obtained using Geoprobe direct-push borings. Two of the groundwater samples were taken on the former business property and one sample was taken upgradient of the facility. Results of the sampling indicated that one contaminant posed a health risk: PERC. The upgradient groundwater sample was 8.1 ppb, exceeding the maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 5 ppb. Based on this assessment, it was concluded that the source of PERC in groundwater might be off site (KDHE, 2009).

At the time of the contamination's discovery, much of the area was not served by a public water supply; many in the area relied on nonpublic wells for drinking water. Area residents using nonpublic water wells with contaminated water were at risk of exposure to PERC (among other contaminants) via oral consumption of the water (e.g., drinking), inhalation vapors (e.g., showering, vapor intrusion), and through dermal contact (e.g., bathing, washing).

In fact, 200 nonpublic wells were located in the contaminated area, with residents in the area having exposure to PERC potentially dating back to the 1960s ("Wichita residents," 2014). The final investigation of the site was completed in 2014. The investigation into the source of contamination identified two former dry cleaning operations approximately 1.6 miles north of the site of the initial discovery.

In 2014, groundwater samples were collected from 222 residences in the area of concern, with PERC levels above the Safe Drinking Water Act's MCL of 5 ppb. The highest concentration level of PERC was 900 ppb; this level is 180 times the MCL for PERC (Jurgens, 2014). Excluding the nondetects, the average level of PERC was 55.87 ppb and the median was 11.6 ppb. By late summer 2014, KDHE had coordinated with the City of Wichita to connect all 200 affected homes to Wichita's water distribution system (KDHE, 2015). The number of people affected by the contamination, however, remains unknown as it is not evident yet when the contamination started impacting groundwater quality, and many families have moved in and out of the 200 affected homes. Moreover, we do not know the amount of contamination to which residents in the area were exposed from their nonpublic drinking water wells.

The threat to public health posed by contamination of nonpublic water wells has been noted in the academic literature (Charrois, 2010), and the impact of widespread contamination by a specific contaminant, such as PERC or arsenic, in nonpublic water wells on individual well owners has also been documented in the literature (Boyle, Kuminoff, Zhang, Devanney, & Bell, 2010; Lewandowski, Montgomery, Rosen, & Moncrief, 2008). Since 2000, 216 instances of contamination have been reported in the U.S. that were linked to dry cleaning operations and have had remediation systems in place for at least one year (State Coalition for Remediation of Drycleaners, 2017).

Additionally, contamination exceeding benchmarks for human health has been found in nearly one in four (23%) nonpublic wells in the U.S. (De Simone, Hamilton, & Gilliom, 2009). Accounts of a public response to nonpublic well water contamination, however, such as what occurred in Wichita, are absent from the academic literature. The aim of this study was to assess the needs and concerns of the affected residents 1 year after their homes were connected to the City of Wichita drinking water distribution system.



Adults (18 years or older) who resided in the affected area were eligible to participate in focus group meetings. Flyers about the focus groups were distributed door-to-door within the affected community. Participants were not incentivized to participate in focus groups.


The focus group script contained introductory material that was read to participants prior to the commencement of the focus groups. Participants were informed about the purpose of the study and that the proceedings would be audio recorded and transcribed for analysis. Participants were asked how and what they learned about the groundwater contamination; how satisfied they were with the response to the contamination; and whether they had any remaining needs, questions, or concerns.


The Human Subjects Committee (HSC) at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita (KUSM-W) developed and approved the focus group script. It also approved the study protocol (STUDY00002828, approved July 24, 2015). A waiver of informed consent was provided by HSC at KUSM-W. This study was a partnership between KUSM-W and Wichita State University's Environmental Finance Center. Funding for the study was provided by the Wichita Medical Research and Education Foundation. The sponsor had no role in the collection, analysis, or interpretation of the data; writing this paper; or deciding to submit the article...

To continue reading