Uranium and arsenic in drinking water endanger certain communities

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A new analysis of uranium and arsenic contamination in drinking water shows ugly evidence of how environmental racism persists in the US. Counties with more Latino residents and American Indian residents are charged with “significantly higher” concentrations of arsenic and uranium in their drinking water, the new research shows. In some of the most contaminated areas in the US, greater proportions of black residents also linked to more of the toxic metals in public water systems.

“The racial and ethnic makeup of your community really shouldn’t be related to the quality of the water you drink. And this is something that should be taken very seriously,” said Irene Martinez-Morata, lead author of the study published in December in the journal. Nature communication and a doctoral candidate in environmental health sciences from the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.

“The racial and ethnic makeup of your community really shouldn’t be related to the quality of the water you drink.”

Low levels of uranium and arsenic, generally within legal limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, have been found in many community water systems in the US. But many counties with higher proportions of Hispanic/Latino, Indigenous and Black residents are burdened with heavier pollution. Martinez-Morata and her colleagues used computer models to analyze how pollution concentrations differed between provinces with different demographic compositions.

A 10 percent higher proportion of Hispanic or Latino residents were linked to a They found a 17 percent higher concentration of uranium and a 6 percent higher concentration of arsenic in drinking water. Similarly, a 10 percent higher proportion of American Indians and Alaskans were associated with a 2 percent higher concentration of uranium and a 7 percent higher concentration of arsenic in drinking water. In some western and midwestern counties with the most arsenic and uranium contamination, a 10 percent increase in non-Hispanic black residents was associated with between about 1 and 6 percent higher arsenic and uranium levels.

The new study does not address how these disparities developed in each province. But in the US, people of color often bear the brunt of policies that have piled up environmental risks in their communities. Other research has found that Americans of color are also more likely to live in counties with poorer air quality and that black and Latino populations in the US are exposed to disproportionately more air pollution than is caused by their consumption.

The new uranium and arsenic research is based on EPA records from 2000 to 2011, the most recent publicly available data. The researchers combined that data with demographic information for each province. They were eventually able to closely examine uranium levels in 1,174 counties and arsenic concentrations in 2,585 counties. (There are about 3,000 counties in the US.)

Low levels of uranium have been detected in two-thirds of EPA monitoring records for U.S. community water systems, according to a related study published last April by Columbia researchers. You can view their findings on an interactive map, which also contains arsenic and other metals that can contaminate the water.

Keep in mind that nearly all community water systems reported uranium levels below the EPA-regulated limit of 30 micrograms per liter. But while researchers are still trying to understand what low-level exposure to uranium does to the body, doctors say there’s no really safe amount for humans. In addition to their legal limits for contaminants, the EPA has ambitious but unenforceable targets for “the level of a contaminant in drinking water below which there is no known or anticipated risk to health.” That target is zero for both uranium and arsenic. Chronic exposure to high levels of uranium has been linked to an increased risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, kidney damage and lung cancer. Arsenic, meanwhile, is a known carcinogen.

There are several ways in which these toxic metals can end up in drinking water. Uranium and arsenic are both naturally present in the Earth’s crust, so weathering rocks can potentially contaminate groundwater. But human activity could also be to blame. For decades, arsenic was widely used as a pesticide, leaving the carcinogen in the soil and water. And there are more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on the land of the Navajo Nation, some of which have poisoned water sources. That legacy of pollution has been linked to kidney disease, cancer and a neuropathic syndrome in children. The Havasupai tribe has also fought to shut down a newer uranium mine near the Grand Canyon, concerned about its potential to contaminate the tribe’s main source of water.

In September, the EPA announced the launch of a new national agency focused on achieving environmental justice and protecting civil rights. Martinez-Morata hopes her team’s new research will help inform those efforts by identifying which communities would benefit most from better enforcement of drinking water standards and funding for cleanup. “I hope our work serves practical applications, and at least as a call to action,” she says The edge.

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