From Cacapon December 2001

 How is driving a car like drinking water ?

Peter Maille

It seems to be part of the human condition to take for granted things we have in abundance. This holds true for pure drinking water…but perhaps a little less so after our "Keep Well" drinking water project.

Cacapon Institute worked with five teachers and over 140 students in four WV counties to test their drinking water for bacteria. In each class we described the EPA-accepted testing protocol for coliform bacteria and handed out sampling vials. The students sampled their home tap water, incubated it in the classroom for 24 hours, and then we returned to help analyze the samples and discuss the results.

The moment before we opened the incubator was always full of anticipation with students craning their necks to see the samples. A gasp typically accompanied their first view of the vials -- almost half of which had turned from clear to bright yellow. Yellow indicates the presence of coliform bacteria, which in turn indicates that surface water may be leaking into a well. Samples with E. coli, one type of coliform bacteria that lives in the digestive tract of warm-blooded animals, glowed bright blue when we shined a black light on them. Overall, about 40% of the wells tested positive for coliform bacteria and 5%, E. coli.

Based on pre and post-activity evaluations students came away with a significantly better understanding of well water contamination and its causes. What we learned is that this is not enough—to our knowledge no one with contaminated water followed up with a relatively simple well sterilization program or even a re-testing. And here is where drinking water is like driving a car. Water with coliform bacteria doesn’t necessarily make you sick. Nor does driving a car without a seatbelt necessarily hurt you. However, over the long run we all know seat belts save lives. Likewise, it is common sense to do what you can to safeguard your drinking water. Knowing that education is a process, we look forward to helping students make the jump from understanding to action the next time we undertake Keep Well. A more complete description of this project, including photos showing students and yellow vials, is on our web site.

This project was funded by the USEPA’s Environmental Education Grants program.

For a more detailed look at the "Keep Well" program, click here.

For a "Keep Well" Photo Gallery, click here.