The Department of Public Health Mid-West and the Health Service Executive (HSE) Environmental Health Service have launched a joint awareness campaign to encourage people to test and treat their private well water for possible contamination.

The aim is to reduce the risk of serious illness from drinking contaminated or poor quality water.

It is important for private well-owners to test well water every year and have appropriate protection or/and treatment systems in place.

Well-owners can avail of grants from their local authorities for treatment, rehabilitation, and the new construction of private wells according to the department.

Contamination risks

Verotoxigenic E. Coli (VTEC), also known as STEC (Shiga toxin-producing E.coli), are bacteria that can cause stomach pains and diarrhoea sometimes streaked with blood.

VTEC occurs more frequently during spring and late summer.

Over the past 10 years, the Department of Public Health Mid-West has been notified of approximately 1,250 cases of VTEC in the Mid-West region, with the highest number of cases (164) in 2021.

The Mid-West region (Clare, Limerick and north Tipperary) has one of the highest rates of VTEC in Ireland, and Ireland has one of the highest rates in Europe.

In addition to causing severe stomach pains and diarrhoea, VTEC can cause a serious condition known as Haemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), which results in the breakdown of red blood cells and kidney failure.

Between 5-10% of VTEC cases, particularly children under five and the elderly, will suffer from HUS, with some requiring dialysis. 5% of people who develop this serious condition may die.

Carriers of infection

Farm animals, especially cattle, carry VTEC in their bowels.

Infection can be acquired through contact with farm animals or their environment, from eating unwashed or undercooked contaminated food, from drinking water from contaminated wells, and from contact with people infected with VTEC such as in household or childcare settings, where there is nappy changing or shared toilet facilities.

Cryptosporidium is a parasitic disease mainly found in faeces of animals.

Infection mainly occurs through contact with farm animals or their environment or when people drink water contaminated with animal faeces, or touch contaminated objects and then touch their mouths before washing their hands.

Symptoms include diarrhoea, stomach pains, and headaches. It may cause outbreaks of gastroenteritis, and can have long-lasting effects on those with weak immune systems.

The mid-west has also one of the highest rates of cryptosporidium in Ireland. There were 121 cryptosporidium cases recorded in the mid-west region in 2021, almost three times the number recorded in 2020 (46 cases), and the highest over the past 10 years.

Dr. Rose Fitzgerald, specialist in public health medicine at Public Health Mid-West, said: “If your private well water is not treated, the water you are drinking could be contaminated and cause illness.

“A household outbreak of VTEC or cryptosporidium linked to a water supply can spread to outside settings, such as childcare settings and friends and family. This can be prevented by ensuring adequate treatment of private well water.

“A VTEC infection can be severe in young children and elderly, but it is also disruptive to everyday lives,” she added.

The specialist added that while it can last in the system for as short as a week, it can sometimes take several months to clear the infection.

Infected persons and their close contacts need clearance from a public health doctor before being able to return to healthcare, childcare, or work that involves handling food.

Dr. Maurice Mulcahy, regional chief environmental health officer for the west said: “Private well water supplies can pose a risk to health unless they are properly protected, maintained and, if necessary, treated.

“You may not be able to tell without assessing your supply and having the water tested whether your water supply is safe – contamination will not always change the taste, smell or colour of your water.”