A study on metal concentrations in U.S. community water systems recently published in the Lancet by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, has revealed that two-thirds of U.S. community water systems are contaminated with varying levels of uranium with some areas being well above safe thresholds.
Uranium in particular represents an important risk factor for the development of chronic diseases. High levels of acute exposure can be fatal and chronic low-level exposure has been linked to various health problems, such as a higher risk of kidney and heart damage.
Uranium is a metallic and radioactive element that is naturally found in small traces throughout the environment, including in soil, water and the air and is typically associated with nuclear power.
The study analyzed data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on drinking water systems across the United States and found that approximately two-thirds of all community water was contaminated and that an estimated 2.1 percent of water systems had an average concentration that exceeded the EPA’s limit.
The EPA sets a maximum contaminant level of uranium in drinking water however has a stated goal that there be no detectable traces of the element in drinking water.
“Uranium is an underappreciated contaminant in U.S. public drinking water systems,” the researchers wrote.
The highest concentrations of the element were found in the Southwest and Central Midwest regions of the country and were most likely to serve semi-urban and predominantly Hispanic communities.
An interactive online map that shows what contaminants were found in drinking water across the nation can be found here.
The study’s authors said their findings represent an ongoing regulatory failure to protect marginalized communities and to ensure safe drinking water for them, though more research is required.
The findings are consistent however with other research that found high levels of other contaminants, such as lead, are more likely to affect communities with higher rates of poverty.
While researchers say that it will take more research to discover the relationship between higher levels of uranium in drinking water and any potential health effects, the study may help explain the higher rates of chronic illness in low-income communities.
“The study authors hope their work can motivate policymakers to enact the substantial reforms needed to keep our water free of uranium in the future, such as added regulations, better enforcement of systems that are violating EPA standards, and the speedier repair or improvement of infrastructure,” Gizmodo reported.
One of the study’s authors, Anna Nigra, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, said in a statement, “Such interventions and policies should specifically protect the most highly exposed communities to advance environmental justice and protect public health.”