U.S. communities with higher Hispanic, American Indian or Black populations also have the highest concentrations of metal in public water systems, new research reveals.
Researchers from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City found significantly higher arsenic and uranium levels in public drinking water in Hispanic and American Indian/Alaska Native communities nationwide, as well as in Black communities in the West and Midwest. These areas have more arsenic and uranium.
The researchers said this study could be done now only because estimates of contaminant concentrations are finally available for the majority of public water systems.
“Our findings are particularly relevant to public health because there is no safe level of exposure to inorganic arsenic and uranium,” said first study author Dr. Irene Martinez-Morata, a PhD candidate in environmental health sciences.
“These findings support that inequalities in public water contaminant exposures are more severe in regions with more residents from communities of color relying on public drinking water and higher concentrations of specific contaminants in source water,” she explained in a university news release.
Arsenic and uranium exposure are associated with cancer, heart disease and other adverse health outcomes.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets a maximum contaminant level of 30 µg/L for uranium and 10 µg/L for arsenic. But its non-enforceable goal for both metals is 0 µg/L, because there is no known safe level of exposure to either.
“All communities, regardless of racial/ethnic makeup, deserve access to clean, high-quality drinking water,” said Anne Nigra, assistant professor of environmental health sciences. “Our analysis indicates that this is not currently the case in the U.S. Even after accounting for socioeconomic status, communities of color have higher arsenic and uranium in their regulated public drinking water.”
For the study, the researchers used county-level estimates based on the most recent publicly available nationwide monitoring data gathered by the EPA.
Water metal concentrations were available for 2,585 counties for arsenic and 1,174 counties for uranium.
The research team did parallel analyses for each racial and ethnic group.
“The quality of your drinking water should not be related to the racial/ethnic makeup of your community,” Martinez-Morata said. “Our findings can advance environmental justice initiatives by informing federal regulatory action and financial and technical support to protect communities of color.”
The study findings were recently published online in the journal Nature Communications.
Visit an interactive map of county-level community water systems metal concentrations.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on chemicals that can contaminate drinking water.
SOURCE: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health, news release, Dec. 14, 2022
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