Environmental Health Water Programs

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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

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.

Tracking Program

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.

  • 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.

  • Well Water

    In most states, 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

  • 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. NCEH 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. NCEH, 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

    Ellen Yard, NCEH epidemiologist, collects water samples during Nashville flood.
    Ellen Yard, NCEH epidemiologist, collects water samples during Nashville flood.

    After rainfall caused severe flooding in Tennessee and Kentucky in 2010, NCEH 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.

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Page last reviewed: March 21, 2014
Page last updated: March 21, 2014