Residents of small, rural and economically depressed communities may be at risk of contracting gastrointestinal illnesses from their water sources, according to a study led by researchers at the School of Public Health at Georgia State University.
[Photo: Dr. Christine Stauber]
Their findings are detailed in the paper “Associations between Self-Reported Gastrointestinal Illness and Water System Characteristics in Community Water Supplies in Rural Alabama: A Cross-Sectional Study,” published recently in the Public Library of Science (PLOS ONE). The study’s lead author is Dr. Christine Stauber, assistant professor of environmental health at the School of Public Health.
Current data indicate that outbreaks of gastrointestinal illnesses in the United States are declining. However, aging infrastructure and deficiencies in water distribution systems continue to present risks for introducing illness-causing microbes into the water supply. The risks appear to be higher in rural areas “where operational and financial challenges are prevalent as systems age,” the publication states.
The study surveyed 906 households served by 14 small- and medium-sized community water supplies in a region of south Alabama known as the Black Belt. The study noted the region’s high unemployment rate, decreasing population, aging infrastructure and limited access to health care.
In addition to asking residents about recent gastrointestinal illnesses, the researchers collected water samples from each household and tested them for coliform bacteria, clarity, chlorine levels and pH. They also measured the water pressure of the taps.
Testing showed that the water samples “did not uniformly meet applicable state or federal standards or guidelines,” the report states.
“We found that individuals within households reporting problems with water supply such as intermittent service or low water pressure were more likely to report GII (gastrointestinal illness) in the week preceding the survey; associations which remained statistically significant after adjusting for water handling practices in the home,” the researchers reported.
The report’s other authors include Tracy Ayers, a PhD student at the School of Public Health at Georgia State University and epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Jessica C. Wedgworth, of the University of West Alabama; Dr. Joe Brown, of Georgia Institute of Technology; and Dr. Julie B. Olson, Dr. Pauline Johnson and Dr. Mark Elliott, the University of Alabama.