Clean Water for All: World Water Day 2013

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In 1993, the UN General Assembly declared March 22 as World Water Day. This post recognizes NCEH/ATSDR work to assure clean water.

Spring water
Spring water

Can you remember a time when you were so thirsty you would have done almost anything for a glass of cool, refreshing water? Now imagine that the only water available to you is full of bacteria or chemicals that can make you sick. People across the globe face this dilemma daily. The world’s water supply is not unlimited and is not always safe.

Even in the United States, clean water is not always assured. Improper chemical disposal, naturally occurring substances such as arsenic, pesticides, animal and human wastes, improper water treatment, extreme weather events, and aging water distribution systems can contaminate our drinking water supply.

NCEH/ATSDR’s water programs help protect people from environmental water hazards as well as diseases caused by contaminated water.

Environmental Health Water Programs, Part 1

Tracking Program

  • Community Water
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires community water systems to provide drinking water that meets safety standards established under the Safe Drinking Water Act. To verify that water systems meet these standards, states must collect and submit water quality data to EPA.

    The Environmental Public Health Tracking Program provides funds to tracking programs in 23 states and one city to send water quality data to CDC, including summary data for arsenic, nitrates, and disinfection by-products. This data is available on the Tracking Network.

Iowa Tracking Program

For example, Iowa is using Tracking Network funding to pinpoint areas with high pesticide use and private well contamination and to keep track of health effects. Iowa will use this information to locate unsafe water supplies and create programs to protect people from them..

  • Well Water
  • Although many states regulate private household wells, most have limited rules. Individual well owners are responsible for the safety of water drawn from their wells. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) monitors U.S. groundwater supplies in a national network of observation wells.

    The Tracking Network uses USGS data to provide information about the levels of 11 contaminants in well water, such as arsenic, atrazine, benzene, manganese, radon, and uranium.

Laboratory Biomonitoring of Chemicals in Water and Other Biological Sources

Biomonitoring measures environmental chemicals in people’s blood, urine, or other body tissues. It determines which chemicals—and how much of them—get into people after they have been exposed. The Environmental Health Laboratory uses the health information and specimens gathered by the National Health and Nutrition Evaluation Survey (NHANES) to determine the exposure of the U.S. population to chemicals found in water and other biological sources. Biomonitoring helps health officials make timely and appropriate health decisions by providing better information on human exposure. (See CDC’s National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals.)

Health Studies Clean Water for Health Programs

The goal of the Clean Water for Health (CWH) programs is to prevent human exposure to water contaminants. Listed below are examples of their work.

Countryside well
Countryside well
  • The Private Well Initiative
  • An estimated 45 million Americans are not protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act because they get their water from unregulated drinking water sources, such as private wells, local springs, livestock water tanks, or rainwater cisterns. Sixty percent of these households are rural, and 35% have incomes less than $35,000 per year. The Private Well Initiative has funded 7 states to locate data about unregulated drinking water sources and use it to identify communities or regions at risk for harmful exposures in their water.

  • Navajo Water Study
  • Approximately 25% of households on the Navajo Nation must haul drinking water from outside sources that are often untreated. Even households connected to public systems may still choose to haul water from untreated sources.

    CWH studied contaminants in 199 untreated livestock wells and springs used for drinking water in Navajo communities. Results showed widespread bacterial contamination and identified 5 high risk communities where water arsenic and uranium were concentrated. The exposures were below levels known to cause health effects, but were at higher levels than national averages.

    CWH and the Navajo Nation EPA and Division of Health followed up with education on the risks of using these water sources.

  • Native Alaska Village Water Study
  • Though some rural Alaskan villages are connected to regulated community water, many villages still rely on water hauled from unregulated sources. CWH, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, and village supervisors surveyed 300 households in five villages, collecting household water samples and testing them for chemicals, bacteria, and viruses. ANTHC staff reported the results to each household and presented safe water community education.

  • Floodwater Testing
  • After rainfall caused severe flooding in Tennessee and Kentucky in 2010, CWH staff collected floodwater samples and follow-up samples in the summer. In both states, the floodwater was heavily contaminated with total coliforms, E. coli, Enterococcus, and Salmonella, all of which cause gastrointestinal illness. CWH also found contamination in some private wells in Tennessee and elevated iron and manganese levels in Kentucky water samples.

Read Part 2 of Environmental Health Water Programs next week!

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Page last reviewed: November 21, 2013
Page last updated: November 21, 2013