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Kids’ health improves with UV-treated well water

Dr. Heather Murphy

Headshot of Heather Murphy.

Private wells are unregulated in most of the world, so private well owners are at their own devices to test and treat their water and there’s poor guidance available on how to do that.


Ultraviolet (UV) light may be the key to treating contaminated private well water that could be causing significant gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses in children.

A research study is underway to equip more than 900 homeowners in Pennsylvania with UV devices over the next three to four years. The goal is to treat families’ well water in hopes of decreasing acute gastrointestinal illnesses (AGI) in their children under five years of age. Participants will receive a free UV water treatment device as part of this multi-million-dollar study funded by the National Institutes of Health and led by University of Guelph Department of Pathobiology One Health Dr. Heather Murphy.

“People have known private wells are a problem for years but it’s something that the water sector has sort of ignored because the policy solutions are complicated,” says Murphy.

In the United States – and indeed in most of the world – private wells are federally unregulated. That means homeowners are responsible for testing and treating their water supply despite unclear guidance on how to do so and clear evidence that groundwater contains harmful pathogens that contribute to illness.

Murphy and her team are facing the problem head-on and focusing on children under five, a highly vulnerable demographic. The researchers are hoping to bring clarity to the problem by collaborating with a pediatrician whose previous work found that children with enteric illnesses were more likely to have a well or septic system. As well, they are working with a microbiologist who is the leading global expert in pathogens in groundwater supplies.

The researchers will be sampling stool and saliva from children and collecting water samples to understand how many AGI cases are caused by untreated private well water. She and her team also hope to identify the viral, bacterial and protozoan pathogens in the water supplies that might be causing AGI.

The study is called a randomized control trial. That means all participants receive a UV water treatment device but only half of them are active. Participants won’t know whether their device is active or inactive, but regardless will report via weekly text messages if their child experienced any AGI symptoms, including vomiting or diarrhea. This will allow Murphy to compare results and determine the UV light’s effectiveness.

Results from such a large study will provide a strong case for increased well water regulation and increase the understanding of how groundwater contributes to illness and the global disease burden.

Murphy and her team are taking a holistic approach to the problem too, which will only improve potential outcomes. They recognize that the factors in the situation can’t be studied in isolation, an idea that is core to the One Health approach – that is, the recognition of the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental health. The animals in the surrounding environment and the landscape’s microbiology are just as important as the symptoms presented in people, says Murphy.

Groundwater can be contaminated from multiple pathways. One relates to humans – from suburbs, septic systems being in close proximity to one another and improper waste management. The other pathway involves animals, such as livestock and agriculture waste being flushed into groundwater.

However, illness transmission of these contaminants tends to follow a single pathway, known as the fecal-oral route. Human or animal feces enter the water supply, people ingest that water, and if those fecal pathogens are waterborne, they will cause illnesses and end up in their feces, perpetuating the cycle further. That means it’s crucial for a holistic One Health approach to be taken to address the complexity of the problem.

“You have to deal with all elements of the problem,” says Murphy, “because if you only deal with one, you haven’t developed a complete solution.”

Funding for the project is provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health. The UV devices for the trial were donated by Trojan Technologies.

Learn more about Murphy and the “Wells and Enteric-disease Transmission (WET) Trial” project here:

*DISCLAIMER* Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute Of Allergy And Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01AI153376. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

By: Anna McMenemy

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