Arsenic in the water: Are filters and bottled water enough protection?

Aug 05 2014 :: Published in Environmental Health

By Melissa Murray Jordan, senior environmental epidemiologist, Bureau of Epidemiology, Division of Disease Control and Health Protection, Florida Department of Health

Arsenic in the water: Are filters and bottled water enough protection? |

Private wells in many central Florida counties have been found to contain levels of arsenic above the federal maximum containment level (MCL) of 10 μg/L (micrograms per liter). Knowing it is present is important to the public’s health; but how serious is this? Even exposure to low amounts of arsenic can potentially lead to an abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels, and a tingling sensation in hands and feet. Inorganic arsenic, the type in this water, is a carcinogen when consumed over many years. High levels of exposure to arsenic may lead to death. To address this known contamination, the Florida Safe Water Restoration Program provided filters or bottled water to households with arsenic levels in private wells between 10 μg/L and 50 μg/L. In partnership with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) decided to test the effectiveness of this program as well as explore any further impact of the contaminated water on residents living in areas of concern.

The study targeted Hernando County where nearly 400 of the 1,200 wells tested had elevated arsenic levels. This time, scientists wanted to understand if residents who weren’t drinking unfiltered well water (people who were drinking bottled water or using a filter in their homes) were still ingesting unsafe levels of arsenic through other unfiltered tap water in the home. It is widely known that arsenic exposure often occurs from drinking water, but what about exposure to water in other ways? What about brushing your teeth with unfiltered water? Or when cooking with unfiltered water?

A critical initial step of this project was forming a workgroup with representatives from many disciplines to inform various steps of the study:

  • Environmental specialists to provide background information on areas of known arsenic contamination in the state and details on the private well testing database;
  • Epidemiologists to provide guidance on the study design and sample size;
  • Laboratorians for developing the protocol for collecting, shipping and testing the water and urine samples;
  • Toxicologists to interpret the risk of arsenic exposure;
  • And communications experts to develop press releases, frequently asked questions and coordinate media.

Funding from CDC’s Environmental Public Health Tracking program allowed the state to engage these experts and ensured a high-quality study.

From April through July of 2013, 360 individuals from 166 households participated in the study. Nearly 50% of the participants were from control households: households with well water arsenic levels below 8 μg/L (below MCL). The other half were classified as case households: households with arsenic levels exceeding 10 μg/L (at or above the MCL). Participants provided urine and water samples, and completed a questionnaire on water consumption, dietary history and other possible sources of arsenic exposures. Water and urine samples were sent to the public health laboratory in Jacksonville, Florida for analysis of total arsenic.

The majority of case households (59.8%) reported bottled water as their most common source of drinking water, and 47.5% reported using bottled water for cooking. However, the majority of case households reported using unfiltered well water to brush their teeth (88.7%).

In many biomonitoring studies, only adults participate. This study also included children. Simply because of their size, a small amount of a chemical can have a larger impact in a child than the same amount in an adult. Scientists felt it was valuable to look at a range of people without omitting the smallest members of the community. Additionally, children tend to have different behaviors from the adults in their homes. For example, they may take baths rather than showers – and kids may be more likely to ingest that bath water. Fortunately, no children in this study were found to have elevated levels of inorganic arsenic.

Results: Residents using filtered or bottled water for drinking were not at an increased risk for arsenic exposure through other unfiltered household water sources.

The distribution of filters and bottled water was helping to prevent residents from exposure to arsenic. While testing for contaminants in the wells was an important first step to understanding the problem, biomonitoring provided a more complete picture of the full impact on a population. This was obviously good news to the residents and researchers alike.

No responses yet

The Difference between County and State Health Departments (from a Newbie’s Perspective)

Apr 17 2013 :: Published in Workforce & Professional Development

By Kayleigh Jennings, APHL/CDC Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory Fellow, Florida Bureau of Public Health Laboratories- Tampa

Have you ever wondered why so many health departments exist, what they do, and why there is even a county and state health department separation?  Maybe you haven’t, but I sure have.  Upon arriving at the Florida Department of Health Bureau of Public Health Laboratories in Tampa, Florida to begin my APHL/CDC Emerging Infectious Disease Fellowship (mouthful, I know), I doubted that a state health department would function any differently than a county health department.  Needless to say, I was wrong.

I may not be a veteran in the public health world, but after being immersed in the Florida Department of Health, I learned a thing or two about a thing or two.  Since one of the main goals of the fellowship was to mold public health leaders for the future, I wanted to learn as much as I could about anything related to the health of the population.  After approximately six months at the state department of health, I decided to reach out to the Pinellas County Health Department to grasp exactly how different it was from the Florida Department of Health.

Kayleigh Jennings -- APHL/CDC Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory Fellow

My first sign, as I walked through the doors of the county health department on my first day of the rotation, was a crowd.  Not just a few people, but a crowd of sick individuals sitting in a waiting room.  This waiting room was then followed by another waiting room, and what’s that down yonder…an STD clinic?  Wait…so real people come here?  They don’t just do testing on faceless samples?

After meeting with the appropriate supervisors, I was led down to the clinics where I put on a fancy lab coat, shadowed doctors and nurses, and met with patients all day.  Almost the entire county health department was run like a hospital with nurses running around, staff working way too many hours, and frustrated doctors dealing with noncompliant patients that simply say no to taking their TB medications.  After eight long hours, it was undeniably easy to see that the hardworking individuals at the county health department were in it for their love of helping people.

While at the Pinellas County Health Department, I took every opportunity that I could, whether it was traveling with a supervisor to an HIV clinic, sitting in on a syphilis patient interview, or even watching how the nurses filled out paperwork.  I realized that the county health department was an entirely different realm than the state department of health.  After my rotation, it became very clear to me why both health departments are necessary to the health of the society.

Despite having a deep respect for the staff at the Pinellas County Health Department, I am very happy to have been placed at the Florida Department of Health, because here our samples do not disrespect you or tell you that they will not take their medication.  Important routine testing, and even surge surveillance, is done at the state department of health.  From influenza surveillance to arbovirology surveillance and even rabies testing, they do it all.  Sample after sample, these individuals work as hard as I’ve ever seen to pump out speedy and accurate results so that county health departments, doctors, hospitals, and more health care providers can tell their patients what illness they may or may not have.  The individuals here spend their time effectively and they are all proud to say that they contribute to public health.

After being able to see the differences between the two health departments, I am truly able to value the qualities of each.  I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with individuals involved in public health because they are all unique and absolutely captivating in their own way.  The field of public health is not one for the weak of heart, because having a heart is exactly what all of these individuals have.  They thrive on the simple idea of helping others.

2 responses so far