Researchers Alert: Toxic Elements Frequently Found in U.S. Drinking Water Sources

by Klaus Müller
water contamination

A research investigation led by the University of New Mexico indicates that a significant number of water wells and communal water systems in the United States are contaminated with harmful elements, posing severe health dangers to millions of people. The study shows that individuals residing on Indigenous lands or within minority communities are exceptionally susceptible to these risks. The paper identifies arsenic, lead, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as some of the primary toxic elements. While extensive water treatment systems can occasionally address these issues, a large portion of the U.S. population remains at risk. Moreover, the escalating issue of climate change aggravates the difficulty of securing uncontaminated water sources, particularly affecting underprivileged regions.

The University of New Mexico’s research establishes that numerous water supplies in the United States are contaminated with harmful substances. The worsening impact of climate change further aggravates the quest for safe water, most critically impacting disadvantaged communities.

Contrary to the common belief that tap water in America is universally safe for consumption, new research conducted by scientists at the University of New Mexico and collaborating institutions across the country warns that drinking water from many wells and communal systems contains elevated levels of harmful substances, thereby jeopardizing the health of millions, including potential risks such as cancer.

Published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, the review also notes a disproportionate impact on individuals living on Indigenous lands or in minority communities. The study suggests that the challenges of locating uncontaminated water sources are set to intensify due to the ongoing climate crisis.

Research Context and Specialist Commentary

The study originated from a gathering of senior researchers at the annual conference of the International Society for Exposure Epidemiology, stated Johnnye Lewis, Ph.D., who is a professor emerita in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, the leading investigator of the Navajo Birth Cohort Study, co-director of the Community Environmental Health Program, and director of the UNM METALS Superfund Research Program.

Multiple experts in this research domain have observed unsafe levels of these harmful substances in various drinking water sources for diverse reasons, Lewis remarked.

Principal Harmful Elements in Drinking Water

The paper scrutinizes seven key contaminants frequently present in drinking water: arsenic, substances used in hydraulic fracturing, lead, nitrates, chlorine-based disinfection byproducts, PFAS, and uranium. The efficacy in identifying and purging these substances from drinking water varies considerably.

Most of these elements, including but not limited to inorganic arsenic, uranium, nitrates, and lead, are identified or suspected to be carcinogenic. Chronic exposure to these contaminants is also associated with numerous other health implications, such as neurological and developmental disorders.

Lewis pointed out that elements like uranium, arsenic, and nitrates commonly occur in groundwater, which may sometimes be the only accessible source.

Human-introduced elements like hydraulic fracturing fluids and PFAS pose additional, yet not fully understood risks. For instance, PFAS can persist in the environment for a long duration without degradation, a problem only recently receiving due attention.

Scale and Impact of Contaminants

The seven harmful elements listed represent a fraction of the thousands of chemical agents that could be found in drinking water, according to the authors. Furthermore, the presence of combinations of these elements in a water source increases the possibility of synergistic, and therefore potentially more harmful, effects.

Water Systems and Infrastructure Requirements

Major water systems possess the capabilities to either eliminate or dilute certain contaminants; however, a considerable segment of the American populace lacks even this level of protection.

Approximately 150,000 public water systems exist in the United States. About one-third of these are communal systems that serve around 320 million Americans, equating to 95% of the total population. Notably, 91% of these communal systems serve fewer than 10,000 individuals, totaling 52 million people, while over 43 million Americans depend on private wells for their drinking water supply.

The study emphasizes an urgent need for a unified effort to modernize the U.S. drinking water infrastructure, bolster water quality standards, advance water treatment technologies, gather and share monitoring data, and mandate rigorous chemical safety tests.

Climate Change Complications

Lewis warns that the climate crisis is making it increasingly difficult to secure uncontaminated water supplies, especially in the western regions of the United States.

She emphasized that the effects of climate change would most severely impact those who are least equipped to manage them, largely because of the insufficient water monitoring in underserved areas.

Reference Information

The study, titled “US drinking water quality: exposure risk profiles for seven legacy and emerging contaminants,” was published on 22 September 2023 in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology.

Funding Sources

The research was funded by NIH/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH Office of the Director, and National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about water contamination

What does the University of New Mexico study reveal about U.S. drinking water?

The University of New Mexico study highlights that many U.S. drinking water sources contain toxic contaminants, including arsenic, lead, and PFAS, posing health risks to millions of people.

Who is particularly vulnerable to the effects of water contamination?

The research indicates that individuals living on tribal lands or in minority communities are disproportionately affected by the presence of toxic contaminants in drinking water.

How does climate change contribute to the challenge of safe water sourcing?

Climate change exacerbates the difficulty of finding clean water sources, especially in the western U.S., as it puts additional stress on water availability and quality.

What are some of the key contaminants identified in the study?

The study assesses seven primary contaminants found in drinking water, including arsenic, fracking fluids, lead, nitrates, chlorinated disinfection byproducts, PFAS, and uranium.

What are the potential health risks associated with these contaminants?

Most of these contaminants, such as arsenic, lead, uranium, and nitrates, are known or suspected carcinogens and can also lead to neurological and developmental problems with chronic exposure.

How many Americans lack adequate protection from water contaminants?

The researchers estimate that a significant portion of the U.S. population lacks sufficient protection, with over 43 million Americans relying on private wells for drinking water, and many community water systems serving smaller populations may struggle to address contaminants effectively.

What recommendations does the study make to address this issue?

The study emphasizes the need for investments in upgrading drinking water infrastructure, strengthening water quality standards, developing enhanced water treatment methods, collecting and sharing monitoring data, and implementing more stringent chemical safety testing.

How was the research funded?

The research was funded by the NIH/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH Office of the Director, and National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

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EcoAdvocate October 11, 2023 - 5:17 pm

climate change makin’ water probs even worse? omg, gotta do sumthin’ ’bout that!

WaterWatchdog October 11, 2023 - 8:53 pm

them contaminants, bad news, they harm us & environmnt. needs fixin’ now!

JohnDoe45 October 12, 2023 - 9:34 am

wow, dis study’s a real eye opener! lots of peeps drinkin’ bad water, that ain’t cool!

ConcernedCitizen October 12, 2023 - 1:22 pm

yikes! sumone should share this w/ gov’t & make ’em act! #CleanWaterNow


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