Study finds dangerous contaminants in drinking water for millions of Americans

Many Americans often assume that the water flowing from their faucets is safe to drink, but a recent study conducted by a University of New Mexico scientist and colleagues from around the United States has sounded a warning. This research, published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, reveals that numerous wells and community water systems contain hazardous levels of toxic contaminants. This exposure poses health risks, including the potential for cancer, affecting millions of individuals. Moreover, the study indicates that tribal and minority communities face a disproportionate burden, and the challenges of climate change may complicate the quest for safe drinking water sources.

The paper originated from discussions among seasoned scientists at the annual meeting of the International Society for Exposure Epidemiology. According to Johnnye Lewis, Ph.D., who played a significant role in the study, these experts noted that various contaminants often exist in drinking water at levels that aren’t considered safe for consumption. The study focused on seven well-known contaminants: arsenic, fracking fluids, lead, nitrates, chlorinated disinfection byproducts, PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), and uranium. Detecting and eliminating these substances from drinking water varies significantly.

Most of these substances, such as inorganic arsenic, nitrates, uranium, and lead, are known or suspected carcinogens. Chronic exposure to these contaminants has also been linked to various other health problems, including neurological and developmental issues.

However, some contaminants, like fracking fluids and PFAS, are introduced by human activities and pose relatively unknown risks. For instance, PFAS can persist in the environment for extended periods without breaking down, a concern that has gained attention only recently.

The study emphasizes the need for proactive measures rather than reactive responses to water contamination issues. Addressing these concerns after the fact is generally not a wise strategy.

The seven contaminants mentioned in the study represent just a fraction of the many chemical agents that can be present in drinking water, and combinations of two or more contaminants in a water source could have unforeseen synergistic effects. Understanding these mixtures and their consequences is still an evolving field of study.

While larger water systems have the capacity to remove or dilute some contaminants, many Americans lack even this basic level of protection. The United States has approximately 150,000 public water systems, with about a third serving roughly 320 million people (95% of the population). Surprisingly, 91% of these community water systems cater to fewer than 10,000 individuals, covering 52 million people in total. Additionally, over 43 million Americans rely on private wells for their drinking water.

The authors of the study stress the urgent need for investment in upgrading drinking water infrastructure, enhancing water treatment, collecting and sharing monitoring data, and enforcing stricter chemical safety testing and standards.

Moreover, climate change is compounding the challenge of finding clean drinking water sources, especially in the western United States. Drought conditions and water source scarcity are exacerbating the difficulties of ensuring water purity. This impact will be particularly harsh on underserved communities, where water monitoring is often lacking.

In summary, the study underscores the importance of addressing water contamination issues with urgency, especially as climate change adds complexity to the quest for clean drinking water sources, while also highlighting the disproportionate impact on marginalized communities.

Source: University of New Mexico

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