Study finds disparities in drinking water quality in Wake County, NC

November 17, 2016

A newly published study co-authored by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reveals inequities in water quality in central North Carolina.

In Wake County, some predominantly African-American neighborhoods in urban areas completely lack access to nearby municipal water systems. As a result, residents are exposed to notably higher quantities of microbial contaminants via well water.

Dr. Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson

Dr. Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson

The researchers’ findings, titled “Exposure to Contaminated Drinking Water and Health Disparities in North Carolina,” were published online Nov. 17 by the American Journal of Public Health.

The study’s corresponding author is Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Her co-author is Frank Stillo, MSPH, a doctoral student in the same department.

In previous studies, MacDonald Gibson and colleagues identified neighborhoods in Wake County that depend on private wells for drinking water. In many cases, these neighborhoods are home to largely African-American populations, and are surrounded by mostly white neighborhoods that do have municipal water access.

After identifying these neighborhoods, researchers determined that residents of the areas in question are more likely to visit an emergency room for acute gastrointestinal illness than are individuals from nearby neighborhoods with public water system connections.

Continuing this investigation, the most recent study shares the results of direct water quality surveys conducted by the research team in affected neighborhoods. Laboratory testing revealed that residents are indeed being exposed to significantly higher quantities of microbial contaminants, including bacteria associated with human fecal waste.

Nearly 30 percent of the 171 private well water samples tested positive for coliform bacteria, and more than six percent tested positive for E. coli. In samples from households on the municipal water system, results for both contaminants were only a fraction of one percent.

Based on these findings, the study’s co-authors estimated that more than one-fifth of the underserved communities’ 114 annual emergency department visits for acute gastrointestinal illness could be prevented if municipal water service were extended.

MacDonald Gibson’s analysis of emergency department visits linked to well water contaminants was published online in May 2016 by Environmental Health Perspectives.

This research was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a University of North Carolina IBM Junior Faculty Development Award.


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu

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