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Environmental Factor, December 2015

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Summit addresses safe drinking water from private wells

By Sara Mishamandani

Heather Henry

Henry spoke about the federal perspective on improving drinking water. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Linda Birnbaum and David Price

Rep. David Price, right, who represents the North Carolina 4th Congressional District, provided a congressional perspective on issues related to private drinking wells in North Carolina. He is shown speaking with Birnbaum during a break. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS staff and grantees joined the Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative (EHC) Oct. 26-27 for its 2015 Environmental Health Summit, Safe Water from Every Tap, which examined the quality of drinking water from private wells in North Carolina. EHC is a regional nonprofit focused on strengthening global environmental health.

According to EHC, approximately 25 percent of North Carolina residents rely on private wells for their water, which are not regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, leaving some residents without access to clean drinking water.

The summit, held in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, brought together scientists, community members, and public health professionals, with representatives from industry, local health departments, and local, state, and federal agencies to develop recommendations for improving access to safe drinking water from private wells.

Showcasing SRP water research innovation

During a plenary talk, Heather Henry, Ph.D., health scientist administrator with the NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP), highlighted SRP-funded research, nationwide, related to detecting and measuring contaminants in water, and treating it to meet safe drinking water standards.

Henry discussed research by SRP grantees, many of whom attended the meeting. For example , a study by Rebecca Fry, Ph.D. , University of North Carolina (UNC) SRP center director, linked exposure to high concentrations of manganese in North Carolina well water, during pregnancy, to birth defects. Later in the day, Fry gave a presentation to a community education working group, which was organized by NIEHS grantees Kathleen Gray and Neasha Graves of UNC.

SRP is also funding research on technologies to detect and clean up contaminants in water. For example, Henry said that Duke University SRP center researchers are developing membranes, using nanomaterials, to treat water contaminated with chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants. Henry pointed out that a former Duke SRP center trainee who worked on the project, Alexis Carpenter, Ph.D., was present at the summit.

Moving forward to improve water quality

After the plenary presentations, participants broke into four working groups to focus on community education, governance and policy, pollution prevention, and user-friendly technologies. Each working group raised concerns and discussed potential solutions for problems related to private well contamination in North Carolina. EHC will lead development of recommendations and solutions from the four working groups.

During a community impacts panel, Mark Borsuk, Ph.D., discussed the work of the Dartmouth SRP center to test well water in New Hampshire for arsenic, and inform well owners of their risks and ways to reduce arsenic exposure. Reaching out to well owners that have a higher probability of contamination, and engaging communities to encourage them to have their wells tested, were important topics discussed at the meeting. In North Carolina, citizens can contact their county health department to request testing.

“This is a beautiful example of how state, federal, and other organizations get together to fill the well of knowledge regarding safe drinking water,” said NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., during her talk. She described the long history of NIEHS in North Carolina, and its mission of advancing science to improve public health.

Birnbaum also discussed NIEHS research on water contaminants, and emerging areas of study, such as climate change and hydraulic fracturing, and the need for chemical testing and development of tools to better understand how contaminants affect health.

(Sara Mishamandani is a research and communication specialist for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)

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