May 24, 2016

Researchers at The Water Institute at UNC, based in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, have called for better leadership from utilities, greater engagement by public health officials, and federal-level guidelines and tools in an effort to adopt preventive risk management of the nation’s drinking water sources.

Rachel Baum

Rachel Baum

Dr. Jamie Bartram

Dr. Jamie Bartram

Rachel Baum, MSPH, environmental sciences and engineering doctoral student, and Jamie Bartram, PhD, Don and Jennifer Holzworth Distinguished Professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School and Water Institute director, are two of three co-authors of a “Viewpoint,” published online May 17 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The Flint, Mich., water crisis is not the first domestic water contamination problem to shake Americans’ confidence about water safety, and given the lack of incentive to prevent such crises, Flint likely won’t be the last.

While the investigative process is essential, the authors wrote, analysis alone stops short of protecting the population. Federal regulations, no matter how thoughtfully devised, target only certain toxins or propose particular treatment techniques. A more preventive approach, which plans for and addresses environmental risks specific to a given water source, will be more agile in meeting communities’ needs for safe drinking water.

“While … regulations can help to reduce the risk of waterborne illness from contaminants, different water utilities experience different risks, and in a country as hydrologically diverse as the U.S., standard monitoring equally applied to all systems inevitably imposes unnecessary monitoring demands on some yet cannot conceivably catch the specific hazards affecting every case,” the authors said.

Developing knowledge and implementing solutions that are site-specific will be more effective than generic national requirements, they said. An approach such as a water safety plan (WSP) can promote assessment of risks at a particular site so that controls, improvements and plans for monitoring can be put in place.

Time, money and support are barriers to implementing such programs, especially in smaller water systems. However, the authors urge the development and funding of local, operator-managed water safety plans, as have been implemented successfully other developed countries, as these could make significant improvements in the safety of Americans’ drinking water.

“Providing safe, high-quality drinking water [at all times] is a knowledge-intensive undertaking,” the authors wrote. “[…] It is clear now that drinking water risk management needs to become more preventive. From international developments, we know a great deal about how to improve it. However, what is not clear is who will exercise the much-needed leadership to better protect the health and well-being of U.S. residents.”

Steven Hrudey, PhD, professor emeritus of laboratory medicine and pathology in University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, is also a co-author of the “Viewpoint” article.

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


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