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Arsenic Levels Remain High In Drinking Water, Especially In Smaller Communities

A new study out of Columbia University finds that smaller community water supplies are more likely to exceed the federal maximum contaminant standard for arsenic.

A new study out of Columbia University finds that drinking water nationwide—and in Illinois—continues to be contaminated with arsenic. This is especially prevalent among smaller community’s water supplies, often in rural areas.

The study found that 12 water systems in Illinois, serving over 4,000 people, exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s maximum contaminant standard for arsenic of 10 micrograms per liter. One of those water systems is in Champaign County—Triangle MHP—which serves a small community at a mobile home park north of Rantoul.

“Water systems that continue to exceed the maximum contaminant level are more likely to serve smaller populations,” says Dr. Annie Nigra, a research scientist with the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University who worked on the study. “But it’s just as important that people served by smaller public water systems have their water arsenic levels decreased.”

In 2001, the U.S. EPA set a maximum contaminant standard for arsenic of 10 micrograms per liter, although public water systems had until 2006 to comply. The new study analyzed whether arsenic levels had gone down between the period of 2006-2008 to 2009-2011.

According to the EPA, arsenic is associated with diseases such as lung and bladder cancer, stomach pain, nausea and other health problems.

Champaign County’s overall average arsenic exposure was lower than the maximum federal level—at 1.76 micrograms per liter. But neighboring counties saw higher average levels, including DeWitt County, with nearly eight micrograms of arsenic per liter.

And there were 86 water systems—serving more than 130,000 people in Illinois—exceeding five micrograms per liter.

Nigra says any level of arsenic is harmful for human health, and the EPA’s goal is for all community water systems to be arsenic-free.

“We know that arsenic is a potent human carcinogen,” Nigra says. “It impacts nearly every major organ system in the human body. EPA’s goal for the concentration of arsenic in drinking water is zero.”

Nigra says smaller community water systems tend to have higher arsenic concentrations due to a lack of funds to incorporate treatment. The study also found that nationwide, Latinx communities are more likely to be served by water systems exceeding the federal standard.

Editor’s Note: An image of a water tower in De Land, Illinois was mistakenly used for this article. We have replaced the image and regret the error.

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