A recent study conducted by scientists from the University of New Mexico reveals that many water sources in the United States contain toxic contaminants. This poses a significant health risk to millions of Americans, including the potential for cancer. The study, published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, also suggests that climate change will make it increasingly difficult to find safe sources of drinking water, with underserved communities being at greatest risk.
The research paper originated from a meeting of senior scientists at the International Society for Exposure Epidemiology’s annual meeting. According to Johnnye Lewis, the lead author and professor emerita in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of New Mexico, the team recognized that contaminants were often present in drinking water sources at unsafe levels. This raised concerns regarding the safety of the water supply and the potential long-term health effects.
The study focuses on seven known contaminants frequently found in drinking water: arsenic, fracking fluids, lead, nitrates, chlorinated disinfection byproducts, man-made chemicals called PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), and uranium. These substances can have serious health implications, with most of them being known or suspected carcinogens. Chronic exposure to these contaminants has also been linked to neurological and developmental issues.
The paper emphasizes that detecting and removing these substances from drinking water varies greatly. While some contaminants like uranium and arsenic occur naturally in groundwater, others like fracking fluids and PFAS are introduced by human activity and present new, unexplored risks. The long-lasting presence of PFAS in the environment is particularly concerning, as it can take decades to degrade.
The study highlights the small fraction of the thousands of chemical agents present in drinking water that these seven contaminants represent. It also underscores the potential synergistic effects when multiple contaminants are present in the same water source. The complexity of assessing the impact of these mixtures further adds to the uncertainty surrounding their potential health risks.
Although larger water systems have the capacity to remove or dilute concentrations of some contaminants, a significant portion of the population lacks this minimal protection. The researchers estimate that approximately 150,000 public water systems exist in the U.S., serving about 320 million Americans. Of these systems, 91% serve fewer than 10,000 people. Additionally, more than 43 million Americans rely on private wells for their drinking water.
Based on their findings, the scientists emphasize the urgent need for investments in upgrading the drinking water infrastructure. They also call for stronger drinking water standards, enhanced water treatment, better data collection and dissemination, and more rigorous chemical safety testing.
Ensuring the availability of clean and safe drinking water for all Americans is essential, with particular attention given to underserved communities. As climate change continues to impact water sources, proactive measures must be taken to address the growing threat of toxic contaminants in the U.S. water supply.
1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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