Two-thirds of U.S. community water systems have detectable levels of uranium, and the highest levels are in Hispanic communities, according to a new study.
"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 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 U.S. 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.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ingesting large quantities of uranium can cause several cancers and damage kidneys.
Semi-urban Hispanic communities had the highest levels of uranium, as well as selenium, barium, chromium and arsenic, the study 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, according to findings published April 6 in The Lancet Planetary Health.
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.
They noted that Hispanic Americans have a number of health disparities, including increased death due to diabetes, as well as liver, kidney and heart disease.
"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."
There's more on uranium at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
SOURCE: Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, news release, April 6, 2022