ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – A new study published by a University of New Mexico (UNM) researcher with colleagues from across the United States warns that water from many wells and community water systems contains unsafe levels of toxic contaminants, exposing millions to health risks.

The review published in the “Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology” also found that people living on tribal lands or in minority communities are disproportionately affected.

The paper assesses seven known contaminants that often find their way into drinking water: arsenic, fracking fluids, lead, nitrates, chlorinated disinfection byproducts, manmade chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and uranium. The ability to detect and remove these substances from drinking water varies widely.

According to research, most of the substances, including inorganic arsenic, nitrates, uranium and lead, are known or suspected carcinogens, while chronic exposure to most of the contaminants has been linked to a host of other issues, including neurological and developmental problems.

“Some of these, like uranium and arsenic – and even nitrates – are just common,” said Johnnye Lewis, Ph.D., professor emerita in the UNM Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, multiple principal investigator of the Navajo Birth Cohort Study, co-director of Community Environmental Health Program and director of the UNM METALS Superfund Research Program. “They commonly occur in groundwater, and sometimes it is the source that you have access to.”

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The seven contaminants are a small fraction of the thousands of chemical agents present in drinking water, the authors reported. More research needs to be done to study how contaminants interact with each other. “We’re only really now starting to come up with good methods to assess what those mixtures do,” Lewis said. “There’s always a lot of uncertainty, because a mixture is not the same in one community as it is in the next.”

The researchers estimate that there are about 150,000 public water systems in the U.S., about one-third of which are community water systems serving about 320 million Americans – 95% of the population. Ninety-one percent of the community water systems serve fewer than 10,000 people – covering 52 million in all, while more than 43 million Americans rely on private wells for drinking water.

Looking to the future, the report predicted that climate change will make it harder to locate safe sources of drinking water. “For me the thing that is most concerning is that you start looking at drought and the stresses that that puts on looking for additional water sources,” said Lewis “The potential for making sure those sources are clean could become more limited.” 

Learn more about the research here.