February 25, 2019

A new study from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health found that houses in urban fringe areas of North Carolina without city water service are at high risk of having lead in their water. In the study’s test area, 28 percent of households had lead in their kitchen tap water at concentrations above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) health-based limit of 15 parts per billion (ppb), which is similar to the risk in Flint, Mich., during the 2015 water crisis.

Frank Stillo

Frank Stillo

Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson

Dr. Jackie MacDonald Gibson

Frank Stillo, MSPH, research manager and doctoral student in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, is author of the paper, “Racial Disparities in Access to Municipal Water Supplies in the American South: Impacts on Children’s Health,” published this month in the International Public Health Journal.

Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, PhD, professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School, was senior author.

The work is part of a special issue of papers presented at the Break the Cycle of Children’s Environmental Health Disparities Conference, an invitation-only event. Graduate students apply, and those selected undergo a year-long mentoring process of preparing a paper for presentation and publication in a special issue.

Gillings School Master of Science in Public Health student Allison Clonch was selected to present at this year’s Break the Cycle conference, to be held April 15-16 at Emory University, in Atlanta.

In a previous study, Gibson and her team discovered that majority African-American communities in urban fringe areas of North Carolina are excluded disproportionately from connections to nearby city water lines. Instead, households in these areas rely on unregulated private wells. Gibson’s team found that, because residents of these areas often lack information about water testing, they are unaware of the contamination risks.

“Households in these communities must be their own water supply engineers,” said Gibson. “They do not have the expertise or financial resources of large community water systems to ensure the safety of their drinking water. Still, we were surprised by the frequency of lead contamination in water in these households.”

Stillo’s and Gibson’s team tested kitchen tap water in 29 houses, analyzing two samples from each home for lead. In eight of the homes, at least one of the two samples had lead concentrations above the health-based standard. In seven of those eight, both samples had lead concentrations above this threshold.

Using these results, Gibson’s team will study children in these areas to see if they are experiencing negative effects that could be caused by increased lead levels in their blood. Possible outcomes include elevated blood lead, which can lead to neurocognitive impacts such as lowered IQ, behavioral changes or poor performance in school.

Gibson advises participating families to reduce their risks by having their water tested routinely. When lead concentration exceeds 15 ppb, residents should test whether running their tap water for several minutes before cooking or drinking flushes enough lead to make the water safe. If not, she says, residents should consult with a water treatment specialist to install a water treatment system, such as a filter. She and her team will continue to design evidence-based interventions that can help families reduce risk and be used by families all over North Carolina.

“I expect many households across the state that rely on private wells for their water and do not test their water regularly may have an increased risk of high lead levels in their water,” she said.

Stillo’s and Gibson’s study is not available online, but those interested in learning more about the research may contact the authors at stillo@unc.edu or jackie.macdonald@unc.edu.

Note: Gibson’s team currently is enrolling families interested in having their private well water tested for lead. The team also will test one child, age seven or younger, for elevated blood lead. For more information, contact gillingswellwater@unc.edu or (919) 843-5786.


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Contact the Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@listserv.unc.edu.

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