Days Gone By - stories from the past

Skin Cancer from Drinking Well Water 50 years ago – was there arsenic in it?

Recently, I was scheduled to have some minor surgery and the nurse called me on the phone to obtain some medical history.  Questions, like “Do you smoke? Have you ever had a stroke? Etc?” The last question caught my attention.  She asked, “Did you ever drink well water?”  Startled, I said, “Yes, but, I have never been asked that question before, what kind of question is that?”  The nurse laughed and responded, “It is a research question.”


This caused me to think, “What kind of research can you do on people who drank well water 50-60 years ago?” Later, I learned that the research involved looking at the history of drinking well water, which might contain arsenic and the potential for developing skin cancers.

 July 28, 1936 LOOKING WEST AT OLD WELL - Sturdivant-Moore-Hartley House, Centenary & Main Streets, Summerfield, Dallas County, AL
July 28, 1936 LOOKING WEST AT OLD WELL – Sturdivant-Moore-Hartley House, Centenary & Main Streets, Summerfield, Dallas County, AL

Well water – where did it come from?

So the question……did you ever wonder about how well water was obtained?  How the place was selected to dig a well out in the country?

In 1947 my dad bought 12 acres of land in Tuscaloosa County to build a house for the family shortly after WW II. Since there was no water system in the area it became apparent that a well needed to be dug near our house.

A local man called a “dowser,” who was known for his witchery in locating water was called to come and use his skills to find the water source under the ground on our property.dowsing

Dowsers knew where to find water

He appeared at the house with his only tool…. a forked stick called a divining rod. I was not present at the time, but dad assured me that this man knew his stuff! The man walked around with his forked stick and he said it turned a certain way when the water under ground was detected.

He pointed out the location to my dad and said, “This is the place.” Dad marked the place with a board and paid the man for finding the water source. My brother who was skeptical about this procedure commented that some “dowsers” were know to have had such a strong pull on the forked stick when water was located that is would blow the bark off the stick!

A local well digger, named Tom Minor was employed to dig the well. He was known in the community to dig square wells. As it turned out the well was dug to approximately 35 to 40 feet down and about three to four feet across. Later after the well was dug it seemed to slant to the left rather than at a perpendicular descent. I watched the process as the buckets of dirt arrived at the top of the well for his helper to discard.

After the well was dug, a wooden cribbing was placed in the bottom of the well to keep the dirt from falling into the water.cribbing

The cribbing rotted away

The last stage was building a well cover out of boards and adding a pulley, rope and water bucket.  Dad let me practice lowering the bucket in to the well and then pulling up the bucket of water with the aid of the pulley and rope. The rope would fall on the ground as I pulled the rope hand over hand to bring water filled bucket up out of the well. That was fun the first time, but afterwards it became a chore!

After several years, the cribbing at the bottom of the well rotten out and my dad bought four large concrete tiles to place in the well to keep the dirt out.

My brother recalls the incident when the man hired to put in the concrete tiles was slightly injured. The man rigged up a large windlass to lower the tiles in to the well.

When the fourth tile was being placed the man looked down to see if the tile was in the proper place and then all of a sudden the tile shifted, the windlass flew out of the man’s hand and he was knocked to the ground.  He was stunned but was OK.water well

Clothes turned rusty colored

Water had to be drawn from the well for baths, kitchen use, washing clothes and to water the livestock.  I can’t remember how many bucket of water we had to draw and then heat to pour into the ringer washing machine and rinse tubs on the back porch on wash day. That was a lot of water!

Late, people in the community tried deep drilling for water.  This was expensive and the water was undrinkable due to the iron content. Clothes washed in this water turned rusty colored.

It was years before a water system was available in the community.  How I appreciated that water coming out of my tap!

Chinaberries and Other Memories of Alabama by Jean Butterworth

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Chinaberries and Other Memories of Alabama


By (author): Jean Butterworth
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About Jean Butterworth

Jean Champion Butterworth is originally from Tuscaloosa County, graduating from Tuscaloosa County High School, Druid City Hospital School of Nursing and The University of Alabama. She is a retired nurse. Working 27 years at The Children’s Hospital as Department Director, Specialty Clinics. She has traveled extensively in Europe, Africa, The Middle East, and Eastern Europe. You can contact Jean at [email protected] See additional stories by Jean Butterworth on www.daysgoneby.me She also now has a Kindle Ebook Chinaberries and Other Memories of Alabama

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66 comments

  1. Mary Wilburn Stanfield

    Interesting article but whats the link between drinking well water and skin cancer?

  2. Chris Baxter

    I should be dead then!!! Been drinking well water all my life

    1. Marie Bosarge Everett

      Me to. I still have well water.

  3. John H. Allen

    This is a nice little story, but it never addresses the problem mentioned in the title.

  4. Tommy Lee

    And who didn’t drink well water while growing up in rural Alabama.

  5. Sonia King Hill

    Some of us still do! 🙂

  6. Glenn Ellis Jr.

    Yea many folks still have Wells there is a camp ground in Lagston that is on Well water

  7. Heather Hair Meissen

    You guys must have missed the first paragraph which says they are doing research looking at the link between well water and levels of arsenic that have been shown to cause cancer (arsenic that is- not necessarily well water).

  8. Earline Smith Crews

    This article is interesting, but what is the connection between what was written and what was asked? Dropped the ball on that one.

  9. The research is being done to determine the levels of heavy metals in the water. Not once did the author say the medical staff said well water was not potable. There are inherent dangers in everything we eat or drink everything. It is up to us to learn about those dangers and to make decisions based on the FACTS and attempt to live as healthy as we can. This is how people live and how they always have. The fact that we have all drank well water is not the question nor is it the answer, it is only one factor in our lives that always contribute to the tapestry that is our body. The presence or absence of these compounds in the well water is not a “problem” it is a reality. To scientists the chemical is just a chemical and they do not label them bad or good they label them according to their merit and they use them how they need but they always use proper caution when they do. Take cigarette smoke for instance. To a scientist studying the effects of cigarette smoke on a chronic smoker it is the minute details that are of interest. The scientist does not label the smoker as bad, nor even the cigarette as bad. The scientist sees the cigarette as a part of the experiment and while he/she may use certain cautions with the tobacco it is not inherently bad. So, while there will always be those with a less than scientific mind that wish to place blame or label things as good bad or other we should all attempt to remain as neutral as those that are performing the study.

  10. Dorothy Toney

    Still drinking well water. First in Washington now in Arizona

  11. Sandra Day

    I drank well water growing up and we had it tested 3 or 4 times a year. Turns out our well water was purer than the “city water”. No chlorine, no fluoride, no bacteria, just clean, fresh water.

  12. Joan McCarley Kurasaka

    I am 60 + years old and drank well water for the first eighteen years of my life, spring water for the past 21 years. The gap between these years are the years we were in the military.

  13. Lori Chaykowsky

    Strange. I think anyone who has lived there in earlier years definitely drank well water!

  14. I found myself looking for page 2…….!

    I do see what they are inferring to. Well water is not monitored or checked other than for “taste”. Rural Alabama is rich in farmlands which often use a variety of chemicals for various reasons. Through runoff or seeping into the ground, many chemicals eventually find their way into the underground water and thus into wells.

    My father, grandfather, and ggrandfather all have or had Parkinson’s Disease. Research has linked this to well water also. Even being predisposed to the condition, I still drink well water (from the same well) daily.

    Seems to me that most diseases can somehow be traced back to a product made by man. I don’t hear much mention of nature causing cancer, although the sun does come to mind. Man has taken natural and safe products, altered them to be toxic, and we are the ones that suffer.

  15. Sandy Savage

    The link between well water and skin cancer, they think is the arsenic content in the water.

  16. Greg Creech

    Makes me wonder….the Comanche and Apache Indians often alluded capture by the U.S. Army by leading them out into the desert where the only water available trickled from rocks and was laced with arsenic. The army would have to turn back but the Indians, having developed a tolerance to it, could continue on. I wonder if those Indians had an unusually high rate of cancer mortality? Just saying….

  17. There’s no connection between the title of the article and its content.

  18. Sherron Hayes

    When we built the house off Ray Farm Road my Poppa Slatton came out and located the place we should dig our well! He did it with a small Y shaped branch of the new growth of a peach tree! Can’t remember how far down but the water was there and was good and clear!!!! I actually still
    Have that branch!!!!!

  19. Reading this just made me homesick for those days..

  20. Allison Whidby Harper

    I think Fluoride and other chemicals in city water cause more damage than well water. I will take my chances with well water!

  21. Kelli Bosarge

    Think of all the people who have lived to be in their 80s, 90s, and beyond who drank well water their entire lives and haven’t had cancer. Not saying there isn’t a connection but it certainly doesn’t seem to be substantial if there is one.

  22. Angie Taylor

    Still drink well water,can’t stand city water.Got bad stomach problem’s after we put in city water ,never had before,liked to died,got off city water back on my well water and got off all the stomach meds and no more stomach problem’s or acid reflux…..Maybe some yall with stomach problems and acid reflux get off all those chemicals in city water and drink well water would be surprised how much better your stomach might get ….If you notice some bottled spring water is bottled from city water supplies too and your not getting real spring water….

  23. Sam Givhan

    I have been drinking water from a deep well that was drilled about 1910.You have to go thru several hundreds of feet thru Selma chalk to get to Eutaw aquifer.The water is very good.I have been here 72 years and no cavities due to natural fluoride.Best water in the world as far as I am concerned.

  24. Ron Williams

    My parents own a home in Ga .with a 175 year old well they still use. The largest water Oak Tree in the county sits 20 feet away from the well. The county credits its survival to the deep wells water supply. Many believe it is the deepest well in the county. If you look down the well with big lights you can see where the slaves who built the well carved holes in the sides of the well to get to the bottom. The property was once part of a 1200 acre cotton plantation. Their problem now is roots in the well contaminating the water supply so all their water for drinking and cooking must be store bought . Wish the article had been a little more informative on the skin cancer issue. .

  25. Sandra Davis

    Really don’t remember haven’t to do this when very young !!

  26. Lucy Jackson

    the best water is WELL water

  27. Love my well water and would never trade

  28. Cassandra Nancy Kenfield-Lea

    not very informative since it only links to an “abstract” with no real info.

  29. Actually after reading this, I totally agree there could be lead and other contaminates in the old wooden walled wells and I did drink from some of those over 50 years ago. My deep well that I use now would be safer.. I think

  30. Celeste Weaver

    That’s kinda scary. I grew up on well water.

    1. Linor Outlaw Thomas

      Don’t be too concerned about it; it’s done now. People profit from making others scared. Anyway the things they treat water with today can be scarier and the taste left in treated water is just nasty.

  31. Dianne Morris

    All water is contaminated !! Filter best you can !!

  32. Louis Ward

    I have drink well water all life 64 years, I trust it any day over water that’s

    1. Donna Green

      I’m 58 and still drink well water it’s good and cold

  33. William Nabors

    Grew up drinking well water and out of creeks and rivers when fishing and hunting never filtered and never added all the junk they add to water today. Must have been pretty safe as I also drank from medal canteens and soup cans. Spring water is the best and cleanest. Just don’t drink down street of a herd of cows or horses go up stream. Drank from galvanized dippers and buckets too.

  34. I drank well water as a child. But I doubt it had arsenic or anything like that. The writer needs a new proof reader. The title says “their arsenic” when it should be “there arsenic”.

    1. Thanks for catching that. I don’t have an editor. I’m the only person running this site and since I’m ‘chief, cook and bottle washer’, sometimes things slip by me.

  35. Belinda Brown

    Water was better than the water we have today

  36. Ricky Davidson

    Why is a Dowser referenced to using a device called a ” Divining” stick associated as using “Witchery”?
    Witchery, in that sense, can be traced back to our Presence day Religions.

  37. Dorthy Workman

    I was raised on well water…and im fine…im sixty two now…would rather drink it than the water sent through lines today…I think water flowing from an underground spring is also good..wasn’t nothing like a nice cool drink of well water out of the bucket and dipper on a hot summer day…

  38. Joyce Naramore

    My grandfather only drank well water and it eventually killed him – at age 98.

  39. Mark Neill

    yes I did drink out of a well..

  40. R Matthew McCombs

    how contaminated the water was because of strip mines , steel mill pollution etc. our well water looked red, had to haul water to drink

  41. I would think we have skin cancers and was because we were in the Sun a lot. When I wasn’t in the hayfield, I was in the vegetable gardens…….

  42. Bettye Bass

    Still drinking well water, 82 years young.

  43. Peggy Cravens

    I grew up drinking well water and out of the spring water. That was the best water I never had I would love to go to my aunt house out in the county and get that good old water.

  44. Billy Davidson

    have done that and more

  45. Linor Outlaw Thomas

    This is a silly research question. You are trying to associate higher rates of skin cancer in people who drank well water 50-60 years ago – People who lived in rural areas, spent more time outside than their city friends, and did not even know what sunscreen was. You might just as easily associate with the question, “Did you ever touch any livestock,” or “Did your grandparents have indoor plumbing?”

  46. Marvin McIlwain

    My Grandmother did and live to be 100-1/2 years old!!!…!

  47. Jerilyn Collins

    I have. Not all the time, but still. Besides all city water from an aquifer instead of surface water is coming from a well.

  48. Jason Cothrum

    Phillis Morrow Joanie May Uptain Gene Cothrum

  49. Joan Johnson

    I have had water out of wells for 60 years now…..and I did have skin cancer but that probably was all that beach time as a kid with no sunscreen. …..

    1. Paula Johnson Dawson

      Not to mention that Daddy lived to be 92 and Mom is now 96.

  50. Joseph Williamson

    Our House when I was 5 years old had 3 rooms. and we had a outhouse and a Well. I am 64 Years old now and still alive

  51. Lela Allred

    I don’t believe this at all!

  52. Kenneth H. Haughton

    I’m thinking of several close relatives that made it into their 90’s and I never heard about any skin and/or other cancer and they didn’t have any kind of water most of their lives except that from a well in the yard – My wife Nellie didn’t know there was any other kind until she was a grown girl.. . I’m 82 + and drank lots of water from creeks, rivers, little springs running out of the bank of the Alabama, Cahaba, Tombeckbee, Chattahoochie-Appilachicola and other rivers I never could spell correctly but I know’em from start to finish…and once a while ago their water was pure and clean fresh and nice to drink and make coffee too …okay when I croak now you’ll say see there that damn river water killed him… sheesh!

  53. Gene Campbell

    Old folks with skin cancer is probably because they worked outside from sun up till sun down with little or no protection from the sun. How can one tie skin cancer to drinking well water? Drinking well water very well may be why older folks are living into their 90’s or longer. Probably better for you than water forced through old dirty pipes and storage tanks and filled with all sorts of nasty chemicals.

  54. Michael Kendrick

    Drank from springs and river water as a kid with my father on fishing trips. 67 and going strong!

  55. Kaye Cursey Plummer

    I’m still drinking well water. City water is horrible I have to put lemon in it to drink it. What about all those chemicals in city water.

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