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EPA awards $1.6M for IU research on synthetic chemical exposure in rural drinking water

For Immediate Release Aug 27, 2020

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded Indiana University funding to further understand exposure risks of rural communities to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, through their drinking water.

The $1,584,420 grant will support the joint research project conducted by the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington and the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. The effort is part of a nationwide effort to implement the PFAS Action Plan, which outlines concrete steps the EPA is taking to address PFAS and protect public health.

Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson
Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson.Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

IU is leading this project, which also includes RTI International, a nonprofit research organization in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. IU will development a scalable platform for predicting PFAS occurrence in private wells to help understand exposure risks to rural communities that rely on private wells for drinking water. IU will test the accuracy of its predictions by comparing modeling predictions to private well samples collected nationwide through a citizen science campaign using mail-out test kits. The research is expected to substantially improve the accuracy of risk predictions and to facilitate informed risk management decisions.

Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, chair and professor of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the School of Public Health, is the principal investigator, while O’Neill School associate scientist Amina Salamova is co-principal investigator.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Children in homes relying on private well water are 25 percent more likely to have elevated blood lead levels than children in homes served by community water, according to a new study by Indiana University researchers.

The study, published July 6 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first that specifically looks at lead exposure in children who rely on private wells.

“Recent crises like the one in Flint, Michigan, have put a spotlight on lead in city drinking water,” said Jackie MacDonald Gibson, author of the study and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington. “But children getting their water from private wells have been overlooked as a population at risk of lead exposure from their drinking water.”

In the United States, 42.5 million people – 13 percent of the population – depend on unregulated private wells for their water. Although regulations on lead in gasoline, paint and food cans enacted in the 1970s and through the 1990s reduced exposure, lead exposure among children remains an issue.

Lead is a neurotoxin known to contribute to irreversible cognitive and developmental impairment in exposed children.  And lead exposure before age 7 has been associated with decreased IQ, poor performance in school and increased risks of behavioral problems.

Gibson and researchers from other univerisites used a curated dataset of blood lead records from 59,483 North Carolina children matched with household water source information. They found that children relying on private wells had blood lead concentrations that were 20 percent higher, on average, than children with community water service.

The study also found that blood lead concentrations and risks of elevated blood lead were higher among children in older or lower-valued homes, in areas with a higher percentage of non-Hispanic Black residents, and in neighborhoods excluded from nearby municipal services.

“This issue can have long-term effects on some of our most vulnerable populations,” Gibson said. “Risks are especially high for children in low-income households and in African American neighborhoods that remain excluded from access to nearby municipal water service – a legacy of discriminatory zoning practices. This unfortunate legacy contributes to persistent intergenerational poverty through its impacts on children’s cognitive development.”

Gibson said the increased exposure is likely a result of corrosion of household plumbing and well components. Corrosion control is regulated in community water systems through the Safe Drinking Water Act; it is not required for private wells.

Gibson said that households with private wells must be stewards of their own water quality, monitoring for lead on their own and, when necessary, installing and managing their own corrosion-control systems or replacing lead-containing well components and plumbing. But she said that is seldom done because of a lack of knowledge about how to test water properly, the cost of testing and the potential cost of fixing problems that may arise.

“Since households with private wells are not required to monitor their water quality – and rarely report doing so on a voluntary basis – they are generally unaware of these risks,” Gibson said. “In turn, children consume water with higher lead in homes using private wells than in homes with community-supplied water containing corrosion inhibitors.”

The researchers think more education and support, including financial and technical support to help households and communities solve problems of lead in water and lead screening questionnaires for pediatricians asking about their patients’ water sources, are needed to combat this issue.

“This study highlights the need for an overhaul of the Safe Drinking Water Act to provide support for households relying on private wells,” Gibson said. “That includes financial support, and education and support on proper testing. No level of lead exposure is safe. This is an issue that must continue to be addressed.

Michael Fisher and Allison Clonch from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, John M. MacDonald of the University of Pennsylvania, and Phillip J. Cook of Duke University also contributed to the study.

IU Research

IU’s world-class researchers have driven innovation and creative initiatives that matter for 200 years. From curing testicular cancer to collaborating with NASA to search for life on Mars, IU has earned its reputation as a world-class research institution. Supported by $680 million last year from our partners, IU researchers are building collaborations and uncovering new solutions that improve lives in Indiana and around the globe.

“Very few studies have tested private wells for PFAS contamination, but the few available studies have found these contaminants in more than half the wells tested,” Gibson said. “PFAS are widely used in consumer and industrial products – ranging from microwave popcorn bags to firefighting foam – but we don’t yet have good ways to predict which water supplies are most at risk. This project will help advance knowledge and provide practical tools so rural communities can know their risks.”

PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s and are found in a wide range of consumer and industrial products. The researchers will investigate the occurrence of PFAS in rural wells as well as agricultural soils, wastewater and runoff water across the nation, shedding light on PFAS exposures in rural communities.

“Even though PFAS have been in use for decades, we still don’t know much about their occurrence in the environment and specifically in drinking water,” Salamova said. “This is a group of man-made chemicals that are very persistent in the environment and accumulate in animals and people, hence called forever chemicals.”

Due to their widespread use, most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS, though information on health effects is highly uncertain, according to the EPA.

Work on the project is expected to begin Sept. 1 and last for approximately three years.

IU Research

IU’s world-class researchers have driven innovation and creative initiatives that matter for 200 years. From curing testicular cancer to collaborating with NASA to search for life on Mars, IU has earned its reputation as a world-class research institution. Supported by $854 million last year from our partners, IU researchers are building collaborations and uncovering new solutions that improve lives in Indiana and around the globe.

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