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Studying drinking water and health outcomes

The research question: Do water contaminants affect the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease?

Background: Contaminated water is an important environmental risk factor that can affect individuals’ risk of developing certain health conditions. People can be exposed to unhealthy levels of water contaminants via several different pathways. One of the most common and critical pathways is drinking water.

This study will evaluate multiple potential drinking water contaminants—inorganic arsenic, uranium, nitrates, and disinfection byproducts (DBPs).

  • Inorganic arsenic and uranium exist in groundwater and soil and can occur naturally or because of mining and industrial practices. Drinking water can become contaminated with inorganic arsenic and uranium through contaminated groundwater.

  • Nitrates are a natural compound. However, drinking water can have high levels of nitrates when it is contaminated with water from fertilized soil, landfills, or septic systems.

  • Disinfection byproducts (DBPs) are created when disinfection products interact with inorganic or organic material. Drinking water can be contaminated with DBPs when a disinfectant like chlorine interacts with existing organic material in the water.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets federal standards for levels of contaminants in drinking water. These standards apply to public water systems; the EPA does not monitor private wells.

Meet the researchers:

Tiffany Sanchez, Columbia University

Tiffany Sanchez, PhD., is Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University. Dr. Sanchez’s research focuses on understanding how metals affect lung disease development and finding molecular signatures of environmental- and metal-related lung disease.

Danielle Medgyesi, Columbia University

Danielle Medgyesi, M.S., is a Predoctoral Trainee in the Environmental Health Sciences department at Columbia University. Her research interests include examining the link between drinking water quality and chronic diseases, as well as household air pollution and maternal and child health. As a PhD candidate, Ms. Medgyesi has received NIH funding to conduct her dissertation on the relationship between arsenic and uranium and risk of cardiovascular disease and chronic kidney disease.

Rena Jones, NCI

Mary Ward, NCI

Rena Jones, Ph.D., M.S. is an Investigator in the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch (OEEB) at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Dr. Jones’ expertise is in assessing how different environmental exposures, like outdoor air pollutants and drinking water contaminants, affect the risk of cancer.

Mary Ward, Ph.D., is a Senior Investigator in the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch (OEEB) at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Dr. Ward’s research focuses on how environmental exposures, including pesticides and persistent organic pollutants, contribute to cancer. She studies how drinking water and diet affect the risk of multiple types of cancer.

What makes this project unique: Prior research has shown that exposure to drinking water contaminants is associated with the risk of cancer. This project is unique in that it will examine the link between regulated drinking water contaminants—including arsenic, nitrates, disinfection byproducts, gross alpha, and uranium—and multiple chronic diseases. Using data from the CTS and the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), the researchers at Columbia University and the NCI will apply their expertise on environmental contaminants to understand the relationship between drinking water and cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, and cancer risk while accounting for mixtures of exposures and known cancer risk factors.

The questionnaire answers used:

Questionnaire 1

- Race/ethnicity

- Smoking history

- Body size

- Diet

- Physical activity

- Alcohol use

- Menopause status

- Hormone therapy use

- Medications

- Self-reported health issues

Questionnaire 6

- Drinking water source

- Drinking water provider

Project funding: This project is supported by grant awards P42ES033719, P30ES9089, T32ES007322, F31ES035306 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as well as by the Intramural Research Program of the NCI (ZIA CP010125 – 28).


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