(HealthDay News) — Two-thirds of US community water systems have detectable levels of uranium, and the highest levels are in Hispanic communities, according to a study published in the April issue of The Lancet Planetary Health.
“Previous studies have found associations between chronic uranium exposure and increased risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, kidney damage, and lung cancer at high levels of exposure,” said researcher Anne Nigra, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City.
Even at low concentrations, uranium, a radioactive metal, is an important risk factor for chronic diseases, but there has been little research on chronic uranium exposure from tap water. About 90% of Americans rely on community water systems. To learn more, Nigra’s team analyzed US Environmental Protection Agency records for 139,000 public water systems that serve 290 million people a year.
Between 2000 and 2011, 2.1% of those water systems had average annual uranium concentrations that exceeded EPA maximums. Uranium was detected in water systems 63% of the time during compliance monitoring. Semiurban Hispanic communities had the highest levels of uranium, as well as selenium, barium, chromium, and arsenic, the researchers found. Elevated levels of these metals were found in Hispanic communities independent of location or region, raising concerns for these communities and the possibility of inequalities in public drinking water.
The consistent association between elevated levels of uranium and the other metals in the drinking water suggests a failure of regulatory policy or water treatment rather than underlying geology, Nigra and colleagues said.
“Additional regulatory policies, compliance enforcement, and improved infrastructure are therefore necessary to reduce disparities in [community water system] metal concentrations and protect communities served by public water systems with elevated metal concentrations,” Nigra said in a Columbia news release. “Such interventions and policies should specifically protect the most highly exposed communities to advance environmental justice and protect public health.”