WSBT EXCLUSIVE: What's in the Water in Granger?
The Health Department says what it found in the drinking water in Granger is alarming. WSBT'S Fact Finder team has been working on the investigation with the department for a year and reporter Kelli Stopczynski was the first reporter to see the data.
What's really in the water?
According to the study, deet and nicotine are in Granger's drinking water, but those aren't the worst things scientists found.
"The water is contaminated," said St. Joseph County's environmental health director, Marc Nelson. "People should be concerned."
That concern comes after 12 months of testing. WSBT was there for a lot of it.
"Perhaps the most surprising thing was the pharmaceutical compounds identified," said Dave Jeffers, a private contractor with Roberts Environmental Services.
Pharmaceutical compounds are prescription drugs. In Granger's drinking water, scientists found traces of Bactrim - an antibiotic used to treat bladder and ear infections and Primidone - medication used to control seizures and depression.
"It is alarming," said Saira Rahman, who lives in Granger's Saddlebrook neighborhood.
Rahman, her husband and three kids just moved into that subdivision a few months ago.
"We had the water tested when we first moved in and it seemed to be ok," she recalled.
But when WSBT told her water at a home in a neighborhood right next to hers tested positive for medications, it confirmed her concerns.
"We're raising children here. We want them not to be exposed to things they're not supposed to be exposed to," Rahman added. "I'm definitely going to continue using bottled water until we have some assurance this is safe drinking water."
How they tested
Roberts Environmental is a private company from Goshen, hired by St. Joseph County to do the testing. It drilled 9 wells along the Michigan state line to test what's in the water flowing south, into Granger.
Once a month, contractors tested samples from those sites along with five different homes in Granger neighborhoods. Those samples were sent to a local lab, where scientists tested for nitrates, chlorides, pharmaceuticals and other materials.
"What you try to do is have multiple lines of evidence," Jeffers said.
The county already knew nitrate levels in Granger are high. Every time a house is built or sold, the health department requires the well water be tested for nitrates. Those tests show a significant number of houses have nitrate levels over 6 ppm (parts per million). The county considers the water at those homes contaminated.
"There are people that wanted questions answered, wanted to be sure it wasn't coming in from Michigan, wanted to be sure it wasn't from animal waste or other human activity," Nelson said of the high nitrate levels.
What it means
Nelson says the results show what he's suspected for years.
"It's pretty conclusive [the contamination in the water] is coming from the septic systems in Granger as opposed to fertilizers or animal waste," Jeffers said.
"Granger was really never expected to grow as much as it did and have as many high density subdivisions as it ended up with," Nelson added. "Septic systems and on-site water wells were never intended to be able to supply services to that concentration of people and that number of people."
2010 census numbers show just over 30,000 people live in Granger. Nelson says not all the water there is contaminated - it's a matter of degrees. Some areas are worse than others but he worries about the future.
"When you think about it, it makes sense," said Dave Gise, who lives in Granger neighborhood Timberline Trace.
Gise's property backs up to Bittersweet Road. He chose to pay $1,500 to hook up to the new sewer system because his septic was old.
In 2011 the county forced dozens of homes and businesses to hook up to the sewer system, saying it was a matter of public health concern. But there are still thousands that aren't, and Gise and his family are still drinking that well water.
"And it doesn't really even help my well water that much or my neighbor's nearby," he added. "And it doesn't affect the community at large."
"Providing sewer service would fix everything, but if you're talking about all of Granger it's going to be extremely expensive," Nelson said.
The 12 months of testing and compiling the results is only the first phase of the county's study. Experts still have to figure out what all the data means.
"Certainly if you're taking a medicine to reduce your blood pressure and you're drinking water from your neighbor's septic that is taking medicine to increase his blood pressure, that could have a very negative effect on your body," Nelson explained. "But we don't know if the concentrations we're seeing are high enough to really seriously affect somebody or not."
Keeping your family safe
The health department does not want these results to cause panic since there is more study to be done.
But it encourages everyone living in Granger to have nitrate and bacteria levels tested. Those tests cost between $50 and $60 total.
WSBT spoke with 3 local laboratories that do the testing.
Sherry Laboratories: (574) 277.0707
Valley Lea Laboratories: (574) 272.8484
UL LCC: (574) 233.4777
A level over 6 means your water is contaminated. Any nitrate level over a 10 is considered dangerous and the health department says you should not drink the water.
You can make your drinking water safer by installing a Reverse Osmosis system under your kitchen sink, but Nelson says that won't remove all contaminates from your water.
What's in the Water in Gilmer Park?
Granger was not the only area tested in the county's water study. Scientists also tested water from wells at four homes in Gilmer Park in South Bend - that's on the far southern edge of the city, just south of the US 20 Bypass.
The health department says tests show the water there is more contaminated than Granger because of the density of wells and septic systems in such a small area.
What scientists discovered in Gilmer Park:
Sulfamethoxazole, Bactrim, Septra (antibiotic used only by humans to treat bladder, ear and strep infections)
Sulfamethizole (antibiotic used to treat urinary tract infections in humans)
Carbamazepine (antibiotic used only in humans for seizures, epilepsy and bipolar diseas)
Sulfadimethoxine (antibiotic for dogs and cats)
The next phase of the study involves bringing in experts to interpret what all the data means. Before that happens, the health department will release all the findings at a public meeting December 11 at 4:30 p.m. at the County City building.
The Regional Sewer and Water District along with the Health Department will also begin to figure out goals and plans to fix the problem.